Getting Emotional Over Branding

Photo by andyotto
Almost everyone in America has, at one point or another, stopped at a generic gas station convenience store on a mostly empty highway where, in addition to chips, soda, acrid coffee, cheap sunglasses, and maybe an expired can of Fix-A-Flat, you are guaranteed to find at least one of the following items:
  • A mid-90s “ghetto” Bugs Bunny Looney Tunes T-shirt
  • A direct-to-DVD/VHS Steven Segal movie
  • A gallon of lighter fluid
  • A snow globe advertising a landmark in another state
  • A random collection of magnets with people’s names on them (though yours will always be missing)
If nothing else, it calls into question exactly just who this store is convenient for…
In all honesty, it’s not hard to follow the train of thought that gave birth to this confused little retail time capsule. After all, aren’t you supposed to try anything and everything you can to build a successful business?
Yet to the vast majority of customers, a random array of items like this degrades, rather than improves, their perception of the store’s quality. The obvious lack of focus just doesn’t inspire confidence in any one of the previous products, nor in the business that sells them.
The past decade has seen a meteoric rise in brands that offer a highly specific promise of “experience.” Department stores like Sears and JCPenney have seen sales plummet while the very same clothing brands they sell have opened their own retail shops to remarkable success. Mega-manufacturers like Casio and Sony have watched their stars dim while extremely focused companies like Apple, Fitbit and Nest have grown exponentially.
The takeaway, however, shouldn’t be that a successful company can only do one thing. Rather, it’s that all of these successful businesses have built brands around a specific emotional benefit to their customers, rather than the functional benefit of their products.
Take Nest, for example, who produce energy-saving “learning” thermostats. They play upon a homeowner’s desire for greater control over their home (emotional benefit), not the effectiveness or efficiency of their digital thermostats (functional benefit). This has allowed the company to grow—launching new products like a smoke alarm—without contradicting their own brand positioning.
By contrast there’s General Motors. There have been countless articles written about how GM steered their product portfolio into the ground—but far less has been written about the fact that for thirty years, they built their brand on the functional benefit of their products (typically with regard to value or reliability) while completely neglecting any emotional connection with their customers beyond a waning sense of Americana.
In my home state of New Jersey (please don’t stop reading), a small company named Wawa brings this contrast of examples full circle. Anyone who has road tripped through the Garden State can tell you that a cult of devotion has sprung up around this gas station and convenience store chain, which has now grown to almost 650 locations across the mid-Atlantic coast.
The premise is decidedly simple: in a market segment known for rancid junk food, toxic restrooms, and surly dirt-covered pump boys, Wawa proudly proclaims that just because you’re trying to get from point A to point B, doesn’t mean you don’t deserve a fresh, clean, inviting place to stop and relax for a few minutes.
Wawa is hardly the first to try and upgrade the roadside stop. Major petroleum players like BP, Exxon, and Mobile have been kicking around similar concepts for years,  but with the crucial difference that every brand is based around a functional benefit: good, cheap gas.  Ignoring the fact that all fuel brands are practically the same, focusing their brand on their product leaves any creature comforts they may offer completely unsupported—a fact most people subconsciously know to be true as they watch highly suspect hot dogs roll under a heating lamp behind the counter.
Wawa’s commitment to treating road-weary customers with more respect and dignity than they have come to expect from a convenience store allows them to support amenities like made-to-order sandwiches and salads, squeaky-clean stores, friendly staff, full-service refueling, no-fee ATMs, good coffee healthy snack options, and the obligatory quality gas.  It may not be a gourmet restaurant and health spa, but I can attest to the fact that the entire experience feels fully supported and emotionally rewarding, and that against all odds, there is something a little special about it.
Building a brand around an emotional benefit can be a bit of a hard sell. For one thing, it’s counterintuitive not to capitalize on the things that your product does better than your competition. But ask yourself: will that single product still be the leader five years down the line? Markets change, competitors step up their game, and consumers will always demand something better (and usually different) than the last thing you put out. Is the primary function of your current product still going to be relevant enough to support your brand promise in ten years?
To put it another way, when was the last time someone recommended you buy a TiVo? If on the off-chance someone did, I know a little generic gas station convenience store where they might have a stack of them.