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Obsession Branding

Obsession brands are everyone’s standout favourite. Consumers will pay more, wait in line, or travel out of their way to get the brands they’re obsessed with. But what’s really so special about one brand versus another? Why do consumers flock to one product, and ignore nearly identical competitors? Bryn Griffiths talks with product marketing expert Laurier Mandin about how to make obsession branding work for your product.

Episode transcript:

Bryn: Hi, I’m Bryn Griffiths. This is Product: Knowledge, the podcast about creating and marketing products that improve people’s lives. In Episode One, we talked about how product marketing and preparing for a product launch are different from what traditional marketing agencies are skilled at. Another thing we do at Graphos Product is help customers engineer obsession branding around their products. Well, joining us is the President and Principal of Graphos Product, Laurier Mandin. How are you doing today?

Laurier: I’m excellent. Thank you, Bryn.

Bryn: Well, okay, so I’m going to ask the basic question, what exactly what the heck is Obsession Branding?

Laurier: It’s one that has a very special place in the consumer’s heart, where customers are happy to pay a premium, travel out of their way, or even wait a long time in line to buy a specific product instead of pay less for a competitor’s very least similar offering that could be had right away.

Bryn: So, how do you create that? Doesn’t it just happen organically in very rare magical cases?

Laurier: That’s what’s important for brands and marketers to know. It doesn’t just happen. Obsession Brands are engineered very deliberately, or they don’t happen at all. If you study brands like Apple or Zappos or LEGO, they’re run with a huge amount of planning, precision, daily effort. There’s a strategy for every touchpoint in each significant part of the customer experience. When people buy an iPhone, they don’t throw away the box. They keep it.

Bryn: It’s true.

Laurier: I’ve kept all of mine over the years. Unboxing is massively experiential, and it’s set up to be an easy but dramatic, multi layered reveal. On the retail side, Apple stores are such a great model because they’ve structured and evolved every part of the experience, from the welcome to the farewell, not by an accident.

Laurier: Apple sees its stores as its largest product. Everyone’s welcomed warmly. Nobody waits more than a few minutes without a reset, and that’s what they call it a reset. Laptop computer screens are at a 90 degree angle. So, intuitively, the first thing a customer does is properly position it, which gives a more tailored experience right away. And if a device stops working perfectly, it’s replaced immediately.

Laurier: Employees are trained on empathy, taught to probe, and they’re coached on small, but really important details like hellos and goodbyes. So, when we help clients develop an obsession branding roadmap for their product, we get into recruitment practices, training, planning all the touchpoints, strategizing how the packaging will present the product, how returns and failures are handled by staff, and the kind of language to use in messaging at the various stages to set just the right tone.

Bryn: There’s also an important connection to a vision or a purpose. Am I wrong there?

Laurier: No, there really is. We also help clients to see how their vision and purpose can attract like-minded customers. The messaging for an obsession brand becomes inseparable from the company’s values. That’s what a purpose driven business is. It takes a stand, and like-minded consumers feel a sense of belonging, and they rally behind it. That’s what the Body Shop has done since its beginning. It’s what Dove soap has grown into, and what Gillette is hoping to become. So, having a strong, core value centered purpose, attracts potential brand advocates, and ultimately, it’s what creates evangelists.

Bryn: So, if it’s done so deliberately like this, do customers not see through that?

Laurier: If it’s done artificially, they sure will. Not only are consumers informed and empowered, but they’re interconnected through social media like Instagram and Twitter. Rating platforms are everywhere. They’re built into Amazon and every eCommerce site that comes out now. And that’s why when we identify the purpose, we need to drill down to the core values of the company founder and leaders to understand their vision, the goals that are most meaningful to them, those true core values should tie in with the mission.

Laurier: That’s more important than anything, literally anything, business performance, output capacity, even profits. If it doesn’t pass that acid test, it’s not the real mission. True, purpose driven brands not only don’t mind losing people who are out of sync with their core values, they reject those customers or employees. That makes the existing true believers happier and more likely to stick around. It protects the brand against corruption.

Bryn: We can see this by looking at a number of brands that you just mentioned a couple of moments ago, but is there hard proof that obsession branding works not just that people like strong brands?

Laurier: There is. Unilever, a huge company that owns 400 brands created and they publicly released a study called Make Purpose Pay. Even the name is a bold move, because the focus is tied to profit. The goalposts in this case were all built around sustainability. They identified that there were usually three things holding customers back from buying a sustainable product. First, they perceived it would cost more. They also expected a sustainable product would deliver lower performance. The third was the customers tended to disbelieve sustainability claims in the first place.

Laurier: But Unilever also discovered that consumers didn’t need or even want new brands created around sustainability. They were happier not to switch if the brands they were already using turned out to be better for the environment. So, they set out to make several of their existing brands more sustainable, and they wrapped the marketing around that message.

Bryn: So, they start marketing around the usual product benefits and focused on the sustainability factor. How did that go for them?

Laurier: Well, you tell me. 18 of Unilever’s top brands are now in the Sustainable Living category, including their top six, which is Knorr, Dove, laundry brands as well as Lipton’s and Hellmann’s. Those 18 brands grew twice as fast as the other brands, and they delivered 60% of Unilever’s overall growth last year. That’s 18 brands out of 400 delivering 60%.

Laurier: It’s important to know that Unilever didn’t choose sustainability right out of the blue. That goes back to 1884 when the guy named William Lever launched Sunlight soap, it was the world’s first packaged and branded soap, and the first soap ever to use glycerin with palm and olive oils, instead of fat from animals. His mission was to make cleanliness commonplace. The new formulation allowed for mass scale with much better purity than was ever possible before.

Bryn: And that was like 135 years ago.

Laurier: It was sustainability combined with branding and innovation.

Bryn: Wow. You mentioned credibility as a factor. Do consumers listen to what brands are saying in the first place?

Laurier: Definitely, actions speak louder than words, and that’s what consumers are really tuned into.

Bryn: Okay.

Laurier: But another major study by the research firm Consumer Technographics identified that four out of 10 baby boomers and seven out of 10 millennials tune into company values. In both cases, the number who do are on the rise. So, sustainability is just one example of purpose. It can be social issues, it can be science, gender equality, anything that people are passionate about.

Laurier: The North Face has a campaign called Walls Are For Climbing, and that’s in response of course to the US border wall and an obvious connection to their classic brand image of a white man on the side of a mountain. I heard an internal guy actually refer to it that way.

Bryn: Yeah.

Laurier: But that’s what they’re seen for. They’re taking that and building on it with this Walls Are For Climbing initiative and repositioning the brand to be a purpose based brand. That brand has been around for 30 years. It’s never too late to get started. I mentioned Gillette’s repositioning of its slogan, The Best a Man Can Get.

Bryn: Right.

Laurier: You know when that slogan started?

Bryn: That’s got to be Super Bowl time, right?

Laurier: Yeah, they introduced it at the 1989 Super Bowl, 30 years ago. The original messaging was about traditional masculinity and male entitlement. You deserve the best a man can get. But now they’re using that same slogan to encourage dads to model the exact opposite for their sons and raise a new generation of selfless, gentle and more tolerant man.

Bryn: That’s great messaging if you asked me.

Laurier: It is, and I’ve heard a lot of debate about that campaign. But personally, I can’t see anything wrong with that. I think, even if it’s not true to their hearts, it’s still good messaging. It’s still messaging that we want people to pay attention to and rethink their values in the way they’re raising people. So the only complaint you can bring is saying, well maybe they’re trying to turn into this obsession brand for the wrong reasons. Some consumers may be more sensitive to that than others.

Bryn: There was some controversy around that too, right? Obviously, that some people thought it was a little strong, a little in your face, but I liked it. I thought it was great. I thought it was fantastic. I thought it was unbelievable. Now Pepsi did a similar move that was disastrous for them, but it also got everybody talking. So, while we have this deep sense of purpose, it goes down to core values, special attention to detail at every touchpoint in hiring like-minded employees, that’s all important stuff. But what else is there?

Laurier: It’s also about making customers remember you. Now, rocketing a dated old slogan on everyone’s radar is an impressive way of doing that. But does it last, is an important question. We’ll have to wait to find out for Gillette. But I think the answer is going to be determined by how consistently the brand walks its talk, and how well people remember the message at all. Because there’s some troubling research too by Forrester, that shows customers don’t remember the majority of their experiences with brand.

Bryn: So, we’re wasting our time at least most of the time.

Laurier: We are, and so are our competitors. That creates an obvious opportunity to be the brand that is remembered. Customers have two selves, an experiencing self and a remembering self. It’s like two operating systems. In the moment, the experiencing self is the customer who’s had a particular experience with the product, and the remembering self records the experience and stores it to memory as a story. And the thing is, it doesn’t happen with every experience.

Laurier: When customers make future buying decisions, they check in with that remembering self, and make choices based on the remembering self’s interpretation of the story. But the story changes in their own mind. It loses detail, gets embellished on the way into long-term memory. Married couples experience this phenomenon all the time.

Bryn: Oh, yeah.

Laurier: So, for the customer, a 14 minute wait on hold turns into an hour in their memory. The good news is, studies also show that anticipation is more memorable than retrospection. So that means, if you’re waiting with excitement for a new phone, reading everything you can online and talking to people about it, that anticipation gets remembered, usually in a positive way. And brands can create anticipation. That can be through deliberately delaying product launches to a specific date, so they post that date all over the place and have everybody waiting for it.

Bryn: Right.

Laurier: It can happen through gamification, allowing people to imagine the experience in advance, think of a kid looking forward to Christmas, or through realistic simulations like augmented reality.

Bryn: Then there’s the experience itself. How do we create good memories from there?

Laurier: Well, the key is to start strong and minimize negative peaks during the delivery of the experience. Try not to do anything wrong and do a few things amazingly well. But always minimize the height of any negative peaks so they don’t become the dominant memory. Back to that farewell, there’s the ending. The end point interaction is key. No matter how many wow experiences you deliver, if the overall experience ends badly, it’s a negative memory.

Laurier: The final experience should not only be positive, but should have a human connection wherever possible. Apple stores and the many who imitate them are careful to always deliver that fond farewell, inviting customers to come back soon. Tim Hortons restaurants, which are one of the biggest obsession brands here in Canada, have “See You Tomorrow” signs on the exit.

Bryn: Right.

Laurier: The last thing you see after the employees asked you to come back soon. So, the endpoint of an experience should be treated like a celebration. Lululemon found that customers are often more excited to receive a reusable bag covered with emotive slogans than they are about their new yoga pants. And so it’s a good strategy to move your signature moments toward the end of the experience. You can actually dilute wow moments, or make them unsustainable by trying to build into many of them. Less is often more.

Bryn: I think of what you just said here, and you’re absolutely right. I think to myself that these companies have this down to an art, but people may be dismissive of something like that, but this is an art form here.

Laurier: It is an art form. It’s complicated. It’s like a business plan on top of your business plan, because it touches all areas of the business. It’s not simple or easy, or else everybody would be doing it.

Bryn: Yeah.

Laurier: That’s what makes it incredibly worthwhile. We’re talking about creating an obsession brand that is more memorable, more desirable to the right people, and often more profitable than all competitors. So think back to the Unilever example, where four and a half percent of the brands created 60% of all growth.

Laurier: What we’re setting out to do is engineer a positioning completely unique to the market that takes our obsession branding principles and customizes them to project the brand’s value system. The goal is not only to be more profitable, but to foster passion and excitement and create the ideal environment for obsession. With that comes much greater overall value for customers, for employees, partners, everyone involved.

Bryn: The good companies do it seamlessly, right?

Laurier: The good companies do it seamlessly. But they do it in a very deliberate way. And they create that illusion. You know, when you see an athlete or somebody who is so good at what they do, they practice it so much that it looks like it’s natural and they were born doing it. That’s the way it is with those good companies. They script, they practice, they drill, they coach, they mentor, and they get it perfect.

Bryn: You’re listening to Product: Knowledge, the podcast about creating and marketing products that improve people’s lives. Now, let’s talk about people being prepared and putting in all that prep time to make sure that you don’t recognize that they’ve put in all the prep time yet it just looks like a natural thing.

Laurier: Yeah. Well, I keep going back to Apple because they’re the brand that introduced and perfected it and they’re the ones that other brands copy. If you go into the LEGO store, you’ll see that the greeters are doing exactly the same thing and people are following many of those same processes. Because they work on people, that’s why Apple has the highest sales per square foot of any retail store in the world. It’s not magic. It’s because they do so many things right. They’re so careful who they hire.

Bryn: We’ve talked about Apple where you watch people lining up around the block for a new phone that’s coming out that these people have waited for, for months. They’ve been watching the date and the countdown clock on their website or their mobile apps or whatever. That’s all part of this, right?

Laurier: Yeah, it drives their competitors nuts. Samsung and LG can’t figure out. The only thing they can do is insult the way that people are lining up, because they can’t duplicate it.

Bryn: And yet there’s an art to it.

Laurier: Yeah, yeah, it’s all done so deliberately and the way that the products are launched and the way that they’re revealed, every step of the way. It’s amazing that it’s outlived Steve Jobs, and the company is still managing to keep that up. Because I think a lot of the way that those things are done, that’s probably the biggest kudos to him is that, when he died, he said, “Don’t ask yourself what Steve would do.” He said, “Ask yourself, ‘What is the right thing to do?'”

Bryn: Do people want to do it, but they don’t think they can do it and you can help them do it?

Laurier: A lot of our clients have a feeling they can do it, they just don’t know quite how, and they don’t understand quite how far reaching it is. So, what we help them to do is to take a few steps back and look at all of the different touchpoints and to analyze with their brand, with their vision, what makes the most sense.

Laurier: Because maybe for them a great unboxing isn’t exactly what’s going to win over their customers, maybe their customers are people that just want to get into the product and throw away the box and have it be the cheapest, most sustainable packaging ever so that they don’t feel that it’s too beautiful and wasteful. So, copying what Apple is doing isn’t always the right thing to do. It’s looking at your vision, looking at what you have in common with your customers and building something that’s going to make them say, this is perfect, this hits that sweet spot for me.

Bryn: And staff have to buy in obviously.

Laurier: Yeah, and that goes back to making sure you’re hiring the right staff, training them right, and not keeping the ones that think this is all phony, or I don’t agree with this. If they feel that way, they can’t just be going through the motions because everybody who comes to them is going to know it’s fake. It has to be absolutely real, and then they have to buy in 100%.

Bryn: You brought this up, and I’m laughing inside because I’m thinking to myself, I do exactly that. You talked about the new iPhone comes out, I don’t throw the box away. I set up a Google mesh WiFi system in my house that came in a beautiful box, I can’t throw that box away. Now that you’ve mentioned it, I’m thinking to myself, am I a hoarder? Or am I just keeping this box because I have an emotional attachment to the company and also the product?

Laurier: I guess you have to walk through your house to know the answer, right? If you keep all of your boxes and all your bags and everything else you get, then —

Bryn: I’m not a hoarder.

Laurier: Then it’s probably because the obsession branding is working on you and you’re appreciating that part of the experience because you might get a nice box from a product that you don’t really care about so much and not keep it and think … I had a similar example. I bought a GoPro, the box was fairly nice, but I didn’t have any desire to keep it, I just you know, okay GoPro let’s go to Video.

Laurier: But with the Apple stuff, I’ve got boxes for computers, for every product that I still have. And usually if I go and sell that product again at some point, it’s kind of a benefit to me selling it that I have the original packaging and I notice a lot of other sellers are doing the same thing. So, it’s something that by making that whole thing so important to me, it’s adding value for sure.

Bryn: I have a drawer full of bags. They’re bags with the rope tie [inaudible 00:18:41] as opposed to one with handles in it. It’s amazing the little things, these little things, right? Just the little things.

Laurier: Little things that you appreciate, right? And again, know your customer and know what it is that they’re going to want. The Lululemon bags, that’s a really great example because they know their audience, to all the messaging on there that people are sitting there at their desk or on their couch reading this stuff and saying this is amazing, I love this brand. The brand is speaking to me. It’s making me feel better about myself. You ask less questions about your yoga pants being made in China when you’re all happy about every other aspect of how well they get your life.

Bryn: It’s true. When you walk through a store like that, do you smile and think wow, look at how they’re doing this. This is just, it’s stealthy, and yet it’s so important.

Laurier: Yeah, well, I study it and I ask the employees, I ask the people who approach me, whether or not certain things that they’ve just done are part of their training and part of what they’re coached to do. It’s interesting, some of them come clean right away and say that is part of it. Most often they’ll tell you it’s not, but everybody is doing it no matter which Apple store you go into. So, there’s a little bit of secrecy to what they’re trained for sure.

Bryn: I would feel more comfortable in the LEGO store if they threw a few pieces on the ground and told me to walk through the store in my bare feet.

Laurier: In your bare feet.

Bryn: Yeah.

Laurier: Yeah, and say the things you’d say at home, right?

Bryn: Exactly. Anyway, I think it’s a fascinating thing obsession branding. This has been great. This has been our podcast for today. Once again, a big thank you to Principal and President of Graphos product, Laurier Mandin for joining us. Great fun as always.

Laurier: It was great.

Bryn: Hey, that’s it for this episode of Product: Knowledge. Graphos, you can catch us on Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, and Twitter @GraphosCanada. You can also visit our blog at We’d love to hear from you too. Subscribe, like, or leave a review to the podcast, or share it with a friend or colleague. Just drop us a line at [email protected]. Product: Knowledge is the podcast about creating and marketing products that improve people’s lives. Thanks for listening. I’m Bryn Griffiths.