You’re Branding in the Past, Man

In his book “The Four,” Scott Galloway talks about how shifts in culture and technology have shaped human behavior over time. He breaks down six distinct eras — spanning more than a century — and how purchase behavior has changed accordingly.

LOCATION ERA: This was back before mass transportation, when people’s purchase decisions were largely dictated by what was available at the local (walkable) store.

DISTRIBUTION ERA: This was when the expansion of railroads across the country brought products to consumers at scale. Choice suddenly became a thing.

PRODUCT ERA: After World War 2, Americans saw a period of great industrialization, innovation and disposable income. People bought up cool new automobiles, apparel, appliances, etc. (This was when many households got their first washers and dryers.)

FINANCIAL ERA: This was when Wall Street first flexed its muscle for real. A small group of companies, with the benefit of cheap capital, rolled up other companies into conglomerates. (See: ITT) We all know what followed from there. (Yikes.)

BRAND ERA: In the ‘80s and ‘90s, forward-thinking companies — like Nike and Apple — took innovative products and wrapped emotional meaning around them. No longer were you just buying a product because of the benefits attached; you were identifying yourself, through your purchase, as embodying the spirit of “Just Do It” or “Think Different” or whatever.

PRODUCT 2.0 ERA: Galloway says that we’re now in the second great era of Product. Companies like Google and Amazon are driving this, leveraging technology — and digital transformation, specifically — to deliver these products to their users/buyers almost ubiquitously.

I’m going to challenge Professor G on that, just a bit.

Amazon and Google are products, yes … but each is, more accurately, a means to an end. Google answers any question you have within a second. Amazon gives you almost any product you want, at the best price, delivered overnight. That’s a different kind of consumption than the post-WW2 Boomer variety.

As such, we should think of the present not as a 2.0 version of the PRODUCT ERA … but rather, as the CUSTOMER EXPERIENCE ERA.

Now, don’t roll your eyes just yet. I know you’re tired of hearing that term (and seeing #CX in every other marketing-related social post). But, consider the great brands of the modern era — Amazon, Starbucks, Apple, Netflix — and what they do:

At the very least, they make the shopping experience frictionless.

At the very best, they make the shopping experience downright delightful.

Apple, for example, is one of the few brick-and-mortar operations that has actually grown over the past few years — while most other chains are scrambling to build their online presences. (Apple is now expanding their B&M footprint by building mini stores at select Target locations.*) That’s because Apple stores provide luxury products in a beautiful setting; in other words, they deliver a desirable experience.

Look at the success of Starbucks over the past several decades. In just the past five years, from 2015 to 2020, Starbucks rose from #187 to #114 on Fortune’s list. In that same time, McDonald’s sank from #110 to #156. That’s because Starbucks makes every aspect of the customer experience delightful — from its mobile app, to its in-store experience, to the creation of new (and sometimes secret) drinks that excite their fans to create TikToks.**

The point?

That whether you’re a B2C or B2B marketer, you need to be building and evolving your brand with the customer experience at its center.

Start by defining the baseline acceptable CX for customers in your space. Then, determine which companies in that space are providing the best CX, and how. Then, create meaningful ways to build a CX for your own customers that makes your competitors jealous.

Many brand mavens and agencies are still building brands under the old model, trying to create the next “Just Do It.” But we’re in a post-brand era right now. It’s time to reset your mind.

The emotional stuff is still important (always is). You need great product(s) or service(s) setting the foundation of your brand, of course. But, in the modern era, it’s not merely about projecting some vague meaning onto a brand. It’s about empathizing with the customer and keeping their experience at the center of everything you do.

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*Think also about how e-commerce behemoth Amazon acquired Whole Foods to establish its own (instant) B&M footprint.
**McDonald’s, by contrast, historically designed their restaurant interiors to get people in and out as quickly as possible. (But that was then. Lately, you’ll notice that your local “McCafe” looks a lot more like a Starbucks than the McDonald’s of your childhood.)

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