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The coffee wars are brewing. Boiling over, actually. If you've read a newspaper or watched TV in the last few months, you know that Starbucks (SBUX) and McDonald's (MCD) are locked in massive ad campaigns to win over the hearts of a latte-loving public. McDonald's is focusing its messaging on great taste, convenience, and affordability. Starbucks, meanwhile, is reinforcing a vision that CEO Howard Schultz has been promoting since 1982 when he first joined what was then a small Seattle store that primarily sold coffee beans. Starbucks should be selling cappuccinos and lattes, he argued, because the brand should stand for more than beans.
A few years ago I had a conversation with Schultz on the topic of communicating the value behind a brand. Schultz said entrepreneurs and business owners should ask themselves one question: What does my brand stand for? Schultz argued that by making a deeper emotional connection with your customers, your brand will stand out from the hundreds, if not thousands, of vendors, entrepreneurs, and business owners selling similar services and products. In my conversation with Schultz, he never mentioned the word "coffee" until I brought it up. Of course, coffee is what Starbucks sells as a product, but it's not what the chain stands for. It's too early to say whether the current Starbucks marketing effort will reverse a steep decline in profits, but the campaign—"It's not just coffee"—is consistent with Schultz's philosophy to sell something bigger than the physical product the company produces.
Ask yourself, what does my brand stand for? Try to answer it in one sentence without using the name of the product your company sells. Legendary entrepreneur Richard Branson was once asked, "What does Virgin stand for?" He could have answered "a great music store" or "a great airline," but instead he answered with one word—"fun." By focusing on fun from his earliest days as an entrepreneur, Branson's vision allowed him the flexibility to move beyond a single product. Today the Virgin empire spans some 360 companies. Branson instinctively knew how to differentiate his brand. Branson was able to adapt, change, and take advantage of new opportunities because he sold an experience.
I recently had the opportunity to interview Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh. When I asked Hsieh what Zappos stands for, he never mentioned the physical products that Zappos sells—shoes and clothes. Instead, he answered "happiness." Without a hint of hesitation, Hsieh suggested that Zappos could be running an airline in 20 years. I can't forecast whether Zappos will turn into a Virgin type of enterprise, but by promoting an experience—in this case, the joy customers feel when they deal with the company—Hsieh is setting up the brand for success should new opportunities become available.
Here's another example. When I interviewed Cranium co-founder Richard Tait he told me that Cranium was more than a board game. He said the game delivered "delight," bringing "shining moments" into the lives of families and friends. Tait's vision allowed Cranium to expand to toys, books, and dozens of other products. (Hasbro (HAS) bought Cranium in 2008.)
Don't sell products. Sell an "experience." One entrepreneur even added the word "experience" to his company's vision. When former Cold Stone Creamery CEO Doug Ducey set a goal to grow the then-fledgling brand from 74 stores to 1,000, he told franchise owners that the world would know the brand as "the ultimate ice cream experience." If you've been to a Cold Stone (KAHL), you may have seen the experience it provides—clerks who sing for tips. If the brand had simply stood for "great ice cream," its founders may have never been open to the shtick that sets Cold Stone apart from thousands of other ice cream shops across the U.S.
The greatest entrepreneurs don't sell products; they sell an experience like fun, happiness, or a comfortable, inviting place to enjoy a cappuccino. What experience does your product offer? If you're an insurance agent, do you sell annuities or "peace of mind"? If you're a financial planner, do you sell mutual funds or "financial freedom"? Think hard about what your brand really stands for—it's not always the product itself.
Odds are there are hundreds, if not thousands, of competitors offering the same type of "product" that your business provides. Stand out by standing for something.
Carmine Gallo is the communication skills coach for the world's most admired brands. He is a popular speaker and the author of several books including Fire Them Up! His upcoming title, The Presentation Secrets of Steve Jobs: How to Be Insanely Great in Front of Any Audience, will be published by McGraw-Hill in October. More of Gallo's columns are available in his ongoing series.