Brands are biographies, products are their personalities

We don’t do business with companies. We do business with people. Let’s try to build things accordingly.

A brightly deocorated cake.
Image via Unsplash.

“We don’t do business with companies. We do business with people.” — Simon Sinek

I am a 15–1255. I’m not big on labels, but the U.S. Census Bureau is. It has filed me in occupational category 15–1255, Web and Digital Interface Designers. Most days, I object to being couched anywhere in the 15–000 range. It’s the class designation for all Computer and Mathematical Occupations. We all take up space somewhere, but I usually consider my occupation not about computers and maths, but about people. I deal with people. I design for people. I communicate with people. I work with and for people. Computers and the companies who make them are just the things in between us.

And as people, especially those in the Computer and Mathematical Occupations, we are at another moment in peak proclamations. Think-piece-gonzo articles on Artificial Intelligence applications and the breathless reports of exploits and decisions made by Tech companies migrate south across my news so often, that I could turn it into a drinking game. A shot for every hyperbole, a beer for every ominous headline.

I’d be on the floor by the end of this short essay. This is not one of those pieces, mostly. And I am sober, definitely.

Regardless of where you fall on the spectrum of reactions, recent lurches forward in AI have brought a new level of anthropomorphizing what we see, hear, and feel on our screens and in our AirPods. At the time of this writing, despite how some are talking, our technology we use is not made of muscle, bone, and tendon — but JavaScript, SQL, and Python.

Here is my thesis: starting at the #! shebang line and everything after it is the sum auto-biographical evidence of a bunch of people and the near infinite choices they have made to build and position their product. The result is an experience which should inhibit characteristics, even a personality, that other humans will interact with, rely on, and increasingly place their trust in. AI has only belabored this.

I hold three simple views about all the Brands and Products we put in between each other in the modern marketplace:

  1. Brands should stand for the people who make the products and the things those people aspire to be and accomplish.
  2. Brands products need to demonstrate this biography while meeting us on our own terms. The marketer in me would have anthropomorphized it by writing “Interacting with products are where users shake hands with brands” or something euphuistic like that. But the human in me knows this relationship is not always so cordial.
  3. Never underestimate the value of being likable. That goes for you, your brand, and especially your products.

“People do business with people they know, like, and trust.” — Tons of people

A brand is an expensive word for a biography

I’ve always felt that a company should possess and express a biography: its Brand. And the things a company makes are actions that should be direct demonstrations of their brand. Those things are called Products. Those can be digital, physical, or sometimes in between, but whatever they are, they will have a SKU. More on products in a moment.

In founder-led cultures, Brands can –and should– begin, and then broaden as expressions of she or he who started the enterprise. As companies mature, they need to be balanced with collective and inclusive authorship of the employees who make up the company, but must resist the urge to be diluted into overly egalitarian piecemeal yogabable.

Some think founder-cultures make the best performing firms, for that very reason: a clear and authentic set of biographical traits guide can the company.

“Three sets of hard-edged practices and underlying attitudes, tracing back to the way the founder had set up the company, emerged consistently. In other words, how founders built their companies on the inside, from the start, influenced their companies’ success on the outside, for a long time…”

Founder-Led Companies Outperform the Rest — Here’s Why, by Chris Zook, HBR.

In bigger, older, and more incorporated firms, true biographies can feel less genuine, and they probably are. But hand-wringing over language of mission statements, purpose statements, and vision statements can yield decent substitutes, but mostly for internal culture, less for external brand building. Just don’t let your Marketing Department and their fancy agencies develop a savior complex or over-manicure them.

Brands are not people (but people do have brands). Both never have, or never will be, perfect.

Also, Brands aren’t just what (or who) you say they are. They are what other people notice them doing — i.e. shipping desirable products.

Embrace both.

Products provide proof and a demonstration of its Brand

If you can accept that a brand represents the biography of a company, then a brand’s primary (but not only) action is to create goods or services that reflect its values and style in ways only it can. This is true whether you are selling enterprise SaSS healthcare tech or chicken feed. The part people often overlook is that a brand needs to find a receptive audience. And then convert them into a paying audience. Some slice of the market needs to feel some level of sincerity and goodwill for who you are and the things you make. Bonus points if that audience actively tries to expand your customer base on their own free will.

The best brands are religions. Then, maybe sports teams. Even bad ones. What all good brands have in common is the ability to create or provide a distinct set of feelings that form a unique identity, and then merchandise it through products. Brands make customers feel they are getting more for their purchase than just a transaction of money for some goods or services; brands create transactions that provide a sense of belonging and a value statement to others.

The best brands turn their products into souvenirs of their own story. That’s not as easy when products are less tangible. I primarily report my W2 in the 15–000 range, which means the things I work on take the shape of software, sometimes hardware. And in 2023, we in the 15–000 range (and the 11–2000 set) have a big opportunity — and a big obligation — to contribute to product-led companies that prioritize people and make the world less shitty.

“People spend money when and where they feel good.” — Walt Disney

Businesses in the tech sector fail for all kinds of reasons. Here are two big ones. The role of design and marketing are paramount in both.

Again, I’ll keep it simple.

One is obvious and acute: businesses fail because of bad products. Almost anybody in the 15–000 club you ask can provide all kinds of reasons why products fail. Products can arrive too early or too late the market. You can miss the mark with your customer, or the TAM, SAM or SOM can end up being just too small. The list is long.

The good news is, with so many ways to fail, you can hope failing happens fast.

The other is pervading and obtuse: businesses fail because of bad brands. In the good old days, good products could largely sell themselves. But the game has evolved.

Now for the bad news. Nobody really knows how to objectively make a good brand put a value on a good brand. But people are working on it.

An decadent chocolate cake on a stand decorated with icing and raspberries, and a slice elevated to see it’s interior layers.
Photo by Taylor Kiser on Unsplash

It’s blunt and said in the context of consumer packaged brands, but I feel this is as good a way as any to explain how to spot any strong brand in the wild:

“Show me any high-margin product, and I will show you something that either makes you feel closer to God, makes you feel like a better parent, or makes you feel more attractive to potential mates.”

— Scott Galloway, the Prof G Markets Podcast, February 27th, 2023 — 27:12

It is hard work to build good products and memorable brands. They often require luck, fortuitous timing, and favorable market coincidences of supply and/or demand. But it’s even harder than that. In my experience, sustainable success requires a principled brand that can be uniquely experienced in a useful product.

Then it gets tougher. The best brands align with their products in additive ways that elevate rationale purchases to emotional ones, because nearly every successful business is a gestalt, made up of a distinctive alchemy of a brand biography, descendant and desirable products, and the ability to find a receptive audience that participates in mutual success of both the seller (your brand) and the buyer (themselves). And when all this happens, the sum can be far greater than the parts.

In short, you need the icing, and the cake, and a hungry guest. They each need to accentuate each other.

I’ve helped build good brands that have bad products. When it is all icing and no cake, the sugar rush never lasts. You end up with something that looks great in the display case, but collapses when you poke it with a fork. Conversely, a solid product that has no brand to support it, won’t last for the long haul: products without the right icing do not resonate emotionally with others, cannot command a premium, and have no support to favorably influence purchase decisions in a crowded baker’s case. It is estimated that up to 95% of our purchasing choices are based on emotion, not economics.

Brands elicit feelings from your customer. Products inspire action.

“Technology is synonymous for connection with other people.” — Sebastian Thrun

When you can’t sell on brand, you sell on value. When you can’t sell on value, you sell on price. When free becomes the standard price, you resort to an ad-supported model. When your CPMs don’t outpace your burn rate, the business model rolls over in its grave; and the bargain reverses: the customer and their time and attention become the product, and the advertisers become the user. The original users you design and market to become the commodity whose attention your products rent out, selling it to advertisers and data buyers. This isn’t all bad, but increasingly, the consequences are.

The group-participatory race to the bottom in tech and it’s consequences (and some solutions) are laid out by many, in books like Free Is Bad, by John Marshall.

You are reading an alternative. This is a member-only article on Medium. This means you pay to read it with a subscription, not by renting out your reading time to advertisers. Or, it’s one of a few free sample articles available to you.

If you are not aware of Medium’s operating model, here is the easiest way to tell — there are no advertisements interjecting this article. Its paywalled instead. Spending money is never fun, at least for me, but also for me, paying with your data can be even less fun in the long term. I use Medium because I like Brand. I can’t link to the Brand or any product’s brand, because the Brand doesn’t exist at any URL, but in my own perception. And as for its biographical origins, the founder seems like a nice guy, trying to do the right things. I like the product Medium’s people make, so I pay for it. I trust my writing on it, and it attracts others who seem eager to think, learn, engage and share in constructive ways. The product seems to revere the written word, and treat it’s writers and readers fairly and kindly.

Building better brands and products won’t save the world. But I feel obliged to try. Technology products are progressively becoming proxies for the relationships we have with each other. And better relationships with other humans will make the world better.

What we share, say, and confide in with digital products will become more personal and meaningful. Anthropomorphizing the tech we use is starting to seem less like a metaphor and more like coping strategy. It’s one thing to choose the character voice for a product. It is something more if it is able to discuss it’s own feelings with you.

I just referenced ChatGPT. Does this mean I should take a shot?

What we share with technology, and how we interact with the products we make and market will keep getting stranger, and more intimate. What parts of ourselves we trust it with will also inevitability increase.

Brands and the products they create will get more important. “Brand Characteristics” and “Product Attributes” will likely get more literal. The role of Brand, Customer and User Experience, and Product Design will develop. So will how we measure their value and impact.

It’s getting awkward between us and tech. I feel it is the obligation of everyone in the Computer and Mathematical Occupations and the Advertising, Public Relations, and Related Services sets to keep our eyes wide open, keep re-evaluating our definition of success for brands and products, for ourselves, and for every citizen in every occupational category. We all use technology to deal with each other, whether we want to or not.

I said at the start, I am not much for labels. You can call me a Designer. A Marketer. A Creative. A Brand guy, whatever that is. Government agencies aside, I am certain my occupation has less to do with computers, and much more to do with people: the people who make, buy, and use the software and hardware we all that trust, confide in, and rely on everyday.

It might not save the world, but let’s try to build brands and their products accordingly.

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