Here's a humbling exercise for today:
1. Unschedule your next meeting (you know you want to, anyway).
2. Leave your office building and find your way to a populated area.
3. Find someone who looks as if they might be in your brand's target audience and strike up a conversation. Ask them about their family, where they live. Find out what's important to them. What's their job like? How do they spend weekends? Time off? What do they do with their kids, if they have them? And what keeps them up at night?
I'll bet you a hundred bucks that they won't mention the new faucet they installed last weekend, the loaf of bread they just bought or even the new car they just test-drove. Not only won't they bring up your brand, but they won't talk about the category your brand competes in, either. Howard Schultz (Starbucks), Phil Knight (Nike) and Tim Cook (Apple), you're disqualified from this bet.
You may spend most of your waking hours thinking about your brand and its category, as well as the facts and figures that make your product superior to the competitors, but your target audience really couldn't pay less attention.
This is a hard pill to swallow, considering how much time, energy and effort you put into the products and services that you're trying to sell. But, if you're going to be really successful, one of the most important realizations you can make is this: People don't care about your brand nearly as much as you do.
All of our focus groups, segmentation analyses and social-media promotions produce a multitude of data that fool us into believing that people actually think a lot about our brand and category. Because of that, we think that our task is simply to convince people that we're better than our competitors. We spend too much of our time focused on letting people know what new feature we have, or simply trying to make sure our ads include more selling points than the competition's.
Here's a news flash: These details are lost on most people, who don't have the time or energy for the kind of analysis we expect them to perform. They're just trying to get through each day.
This doesn't mean that you shouldn't strive to develop the best products you can, with an attention to detail to make them perform exceptionally. But these finer points will not do the job of selling a brand all by themselves. These details actually could inhibit the audience from connecting with the product. Humans are wired to go with a quick gut decision, not an analytical one.
Our brains prefer using intuition, making calls based on what feels right, beyond logical thought. It takes too much effort to analyze a situation and weigh facts. As sad as it sounds, we're more likely to choose an insurance company based on a TV ad we remember than by reviewing their AM Best ratings.
A brand can most easily get to the gut of the consumer not by proving it is better than the competition, but by being culturally relevant. A brand isn't so much competing for attention within its category; it's competing for attention, period.
Remember, the great brands, Nike, Apple, and Starbucks were all small, fledgling companies at one time. But, each, in its own way, had a vision beyond its category. Becoming culturally relevant not only took vision, but also bravery, because it meant putting a stake in the ground and standing for something -- which can rub some the wrong way.
Today we're seeing glimpses of other brands embracing this approach. Nest is an example of a product that is bursting out of its perceived category. Through beautiful design and simple messaging, Nest has taken a typically boring product and made it a fun, almost game-like toy. I might not want a better thermostat, but I do want a Nest.
Just a few years ago, who would have thought that Old Spice could shed its image as "my grandfather's after shave"? By reaching well beyond the convention of the category (including not testing their ads), P&G turned this outdated brand into a sought-after one by capturing our collective cultural consciousness.
As counterintuitive as it may seem, all of us need to embrace the notion that we should ignore our competitors more often and realize that the real challenger is not the other life insurance company. It's simply life itself.