Coaster Blog

Your customer doesn't care about your brand

This article was originally published on SavvySME - find it here


Controversy Time.

zBranding is dead. As a concept and as a moniker it has had its day - looking at branding in the traditional, advertising derived sense is holding businesses back. 

The value of a company's brand has always been in what it represents to the customer - being recognisable and trusted were products of good branding. Good brands were deeply embedded through their organisations, but branding to most businesses was simply about the logo, colours and a tag line, and making sure their market knew what each was. 

Customers have changed, engagement is now most important to them. The customer still looks for businesses and products they can trust and recognise, but they want to engage with the business to decide which is the best for them. This makes engagement the primary tool to communicate with an audience, the brand has moved to the supporting role.

I'm not saying your business shouldn't have a brand, and especially not that the elements of a traditional brand are not important. Your brand though is now an internal tool, which you use as the basis of the ways you communicate with your customers and audiences, not all of what you communicate to them.

As business (especially retail) has moved towards more impersonal sales models, customers have moved their need for interaction with a business to a deeper level. With face to face interaction decreasing, customers look for the entity as a whole to provide them with the relationship traditionally received from the sales transaction. There is a much greater emphasis now on corporate good and an organisation’s high level position on key issues relating to its field or industry.

This means the concept of branding as being able to encompass everything about a company and its products is no longer enough to satisfy the market. Traditional branding was like a picture and a good brand was a talking picture. The new brand is a container. It is where your customers, and the wider market, will place everything they think and feel about your company and product. 

The way you fill your container, or give the market the things they need to fill it (hopefully the way you want them to) comes down to transparency. The whole of your organisation should be accessible to those who wish to find it, nothing should be hidden. Integrated communications - where all of the organisation’s marketing, promotion, public relations, advertising and internal communications talk to each other, is where your strategy should be focused.

To be effective against the raft of competition, companies need to concentrate on coming to life for your customers. Coming to life means existing in the same world as them. Your company's brand lives in your world, not theirs. You need to communicate it to your customers, but you also need to listen to what they're telling you.

The traditional brand is a one way tool. You send it out, but it doesn't provide a way itself for anything to come back. If you can't hear its difficult to establish a dialogue, and when dialogue breaks down there can be serious repercussions for a company and its reputation (some oil and automotive brands are examples of this in recent history).

Trying to use your brand as the only tool to communicate with an audience is like trying to listen with your fingers in your ears. It just doesn't work. Your brand isn't everything, in the modern marketplace it doesn't even come close to being enough. 

By all means have a brand. By all means use it. But remember it must form part of a much more comprehensive approach in order to satisfy your customers and set you apart from your competition. 

Your customer doesn't care about your brand. They want to know who you really are. 

Competition - The three sided coin

(This article is from Andrew Snell and originally appeared on SavvySME at  on January 9 2014.)


There are different camps when it comes to how business owners think of competition. I’m very firmly in one - competition is good for business, in fact, it’s great.


Most people see competition as one side of a coin or another. The first view is that any competition is bad, you need to be different in some way, and that it isn’t possible to be equal terms with someone else and work to come out on top. This is typically found in small retail and some trades, where the notion is anyone else in the same field is a negative and the entire market should belong to one business.


The other side of the coin is that there is no direct competition, but there are some alternatives to what you offer, but you’re unique within a broad field. This is often found in consulting and professional services. The typical line from people in this camp is something like “you could go to someone else, but only we can do x, y and z for you”.


Besides anything else I dislike these because both of them offer a position with an easy way out. It’s possible to sit back, to remove a business from looking forward and continuing to innovate - because you’re either behind or in front of everyone else.


I would argue that the majority of the successful businesses in any industry, from technology, to automotive, airlines, banking, even consultants and legal and accounting, have been born simply from becoming better than their competitors than what they do best.


You might say that’s obvious, but many businesses avoid what their competitors are best at and offer customers something similar, but not the same. My competitors coin has three sides - competition is bad, there isn't direct competition and the third, that there are others who do the same things and offer the same results, but we do it in a better way.


It’s the third side which I think is the most powerful and offers the best return, especially for a new business. The key is the established market. The other two options rely on creating a new market, or diverging an existing one to create customers who want what you’re offering. Both of these options are expensive, in terms of cash, time or both.


They also mean it is difficult to determine the cash value and potential of the market you will be selling to. There are plenty of examples of “new” products being introduced, but if you break down the product and the people it is being sold to, the features, solutions and real market value are all already there.


The third side of the coin also provides useful information when it comes to product development. If you are entering an area where there are commonly accepted features and expectations you have a benchmark to design to and deliver on. If you know where the goalposts are, it’s much less difficult to get to them.


There is a risk to innovation associated with entering an existing market. If a product (or service) is successful and continues to do well a business is unlikely to continue to develop and incur extra cost. This means there is a reliance on new parties entering that market to drive innovation.


The positive side of this is the power of the market itself, the collective consumer, to begin to dictate the future direction businesses go.


At the end of the day, the difference (and why I like side three) is in being able to conduct your business on the basis that your success is based on you doing something, many things or everything better than your competition. It doesn’t mean looking like a shinier version of them, in fact if you’re really doing it properly you should appear very different.


It means the market, consumers and your competitors, know what you do and the results you give. It is the approach that has worked in the automotive and consumer technology industries for decades. It remains as relevant today.


Be unique and outstanding in the results your customers walk away with, not the way you see your business against others. If you get the customer side right, they’ll take care of the rest for you.

Why no one should know what your best idea is, was or will be

There are very few of us out there who don’t like to receive recognition and praise for their achievements. Even if it is just a “thanks” and a pat on the back, having success acknowledged feels good and can make the process feel worthwhile.

The problem with that is in order for it to happen, people have to notice what you’ve done, what’s been created. Looking at technology fields specifically, I argue that we are at a point where new developments and features should fit seamlessly in with the user and the way they interact with the product. If it stands out, to me, it could have been done differently, done better.

I’ve quoted this before, but I feel it highlights an important approach in the world of tech right now - at the release of the latest iPhones Apple Design VP Jony Ive said “We believe technology is at its very best, at its most empowering, when it simply disappears.” It is a statement that seems both logical and a little controversial, but the key word, and a key distinction to make, is the use of empowering, rather than powerful.

The difference here is the focus on the person using the tech. Powerful advances and products are brilliant, but they should be built on what they allow the user to do with them, what they are empowered to do which they couldn't before.

This notion is tough to take on as a creator, engineer or entrepreneur. You want people to know what you’ve done, because you need them to want it, so they will pay for it - and ultimately so you can eat.

It can be a real challenge to design a product which doesn't flash, spin, whir and pop with all the fantastic tech inside, rather it fits together and simply does the job it claims to (the claim can still be grand and revolutionary). More and more the user (whether enterprise, commercial or consumer) is looking for the right mix of features and user experience, how easy it is to use can be more important than being the most modern, feature laden choice.

There is really only one way, as the creator, to ensure your product is as user focussed as it can be. You have to check your ego at the design door. It can be really hard to do, but your work will be the only victim if you are focussed on showing how great what you have achieved is, rather than letting the users tell people because they love it.

I’m curious to hear other perspectives on this - use the hashtag #hiddentech, comment on the Coaster Facebook or drop us an email to let me know your thoughts.



Innovation is hard, but not as hard as you’ve been told

This post focusses on something I rarely look at - how things work at home, that said it rings true for most of Australia. Canberra is a great example of a young start-up community. There are brilliant people working in a huge variety of spaces, bringing new ways of thinking and approaching issues to the world.

 No matter where you work, in what field, sector or size organisation, there is a notion that the status quo is simple and most cost efficient, innovation and change are expensive and hard.

My response to that is simple - wrong. (This article was always going to get controversial, so I may as well start early) The most dangerous and expensive thing for any organisation, industry or market is to assume if nothing is changed the situation will always be the same. There are endless examples of this not being the case, from the automotive industry, to retail and even the software market.

Canberra is looking to diversify its financial base, which in a traditionally public sector town means building private enterprise. While there is a spread across industries, markets and sizes of organisation, the current focus seems to be on the tech sector and start-ups.

This brings to Canberra a phenomenon every young start-up community faces, the need to show, teach and offer handouts. This is where the breakdown comes in to the equation.

Start-ups fit the cliche - they’re looking for a hand up not a hand out. Reducing barriers is more important than small financial incentives. Most entrepreneurs have skills they can turn to to bootstrap themselves and their business, what they need is to be enabled to do their thing.

Financial help can be vital, I’m not pretending it isn’t, and pre-seed funding can be the difference between success and failure (which, remember, isn’t a terrible thing).

That said, the notion I hear in Canberra of “once you’ve mortgaged your house to help you fund this we’ll look at you” is ridiculous. I’ve written before about my belief that we hunt best when we are hungry, but there is a difference between being lean and efficient with funds, and being destitute. No one is performing at their best when they are facing stresses and pressure on all fronts.

The thing about funding, whether grant, investment or venture is, in my opinion, it is best off coming from the private sector. Government initiatives are brilliant, they help make things possible without doubt, but from a funding perspective they simply can’t meet all of the needs of a start-up. Moving quickly, changing direction and iterating product design are key to a start-up reaching market and revenue.

This is where the title of this post comes in. It is hard to innovate to the point where people are adopting something. But it isn’t impossible, by any means - and the biggest thing for me is to those who really think that way and try, it comes naturally. Is it hard work for those people? Absolutely it is, but it isn’t hard to understand, and when they are doing it, it happens without straining (the straining comes in different parts of commercialising).

Why is this important? Because people think in different ways. In almost all cases the start-up entrepreneur is going to think very differently about an issue to someone from the public sector, from business rules and regulations, to cash flow, financing, employment and the product itself. There are different paradigms being worked in by each side of the equation and while efforts are being made to bridge the gap, we’re not there yet.

The Digital Canberra initiative is a great, (semi) proactive one from the ACT Government. It has one major flaw though - it diminishes the scope and capability of the people it is targeting. There are fantastic creators throughout the city, and there are huge advancements technology can make to life in it.

Digital Canberra does one problematic thing, I think and hope unintentionally - by setting what the government sees as the “problem” it cripples the possible outcomes. The parameters relevant to government and those which drive the start-up scene are fundamentally different, and to try to fit them into each other means neither will be truly met.

To me, Digital Canberra reflects much of the rhetoric I see throughout Australia from outside the start-up community. We need help. We’re inexperienced, verging on ignorant of the way things work, and need to be educated on the system to succeed.

To take myself out of the space, the people I meet working on their start-ups are, by and large, the most intelligent, focussed and dedicated people there are. They are truly inspiring to be around. They are problem solvers - the fact they don’t work to the system is intentional, it is because they see it (or part of it) as being broken and are doing what they need to to fix it.

To look and talk down to them is not only crazy, but insulting. Nowhere in the process should anyone be saying “you need to do it this way”, if we want innovation the question should be “what do you need to make this work?”

My message, at the end of the day, is this: great talent breeds great ideas, great ideas lead to great innovation. Innovation leads to prosperity. Start at the beginning, with the talent, work with them. Don’t try to jump straight to the outcomes.

Everyone needs to be brave and let things grow the way they need to. The best help comes from opening doors, not locking the ones you don’t want people going through.


Sharpening the knife helps you keep the balance


A balancing act helps you make the most of where you are, where you’ve come from and where you want to be. Sometimes the balancing act becomes a little too routine though, balancing for the sake of it, rather than to get you to a goal.

I’ve been thinking about how to avoid slipping into the routine, how to make it more lively. The answer became clear, and is reasonably simple. Raise the stakes. If you’re living on a razor’s edge, sharpen the blade. Make it matter even more if you fall.

I like this idea because it’s one which inspires constant development and challenge. Whenever the edge is lost you sharpen it, add more risk. I like the metaphor of the blade too - a sharper blade is more precise, more effective.

So a nice image, sure, but what does it mean in the real world? How do you keep the blade sharp? It comes down to thinking. For me, it means throwing out “safe”, once and for all.

“Routine balancing” happens when the incentive is diminished, the prize seems further away or things don’t happen the way they were meant to (or more likely, a combination of the three). It’s when you’re just keeping everything on that fine line because it’s a habit. You aren’t committing to things you should, you’re wavering in the middle of nowhere and nothing is really moving.

I think everyone has been in a position where they make themselves busy, without really achieving what they set out to, justifying it by saying “I’m just waiting to show my hand” (or something else which puts the onus on someone or something other than yourself). 

There is a big difference between positioning yourself between competing influences and ideas and failing to make a decision. The balancing act is about pushing as far as possible without letting anything fall through the gaps or off the edge. It means pushing your development, sales, marketing, people and budget to get as far ahead as you can.

That means making decisions. More than that, the decisions need to matter. That’s the key to the sharpened blade - if you don’t make a good call you can’t balance, if you aren’t balanced you’re going to fall and get cut.

The safer the parameters you set yourself, the less incentive you have to push beyond what’s comfortable. The more bold your goals the further you’ll be able to take them and the more desperation there will be. I like desperation, with it I think you gain some clarity, the imperative is increased.

If you’re looking to push the boundaries, and I hope you are, you have to be ambitious. If you’re going for the same as everybody else, that’s what you’ll get.

There is one thing I implore you to do - raise the stakes, make the risk of slipping either side greater, take out your margin for error.

Force yourself to be better.