Key takeaways

  • Amazing companies turn wants into needs with products and services customers feel they can’t live without.
  • If people want to know what you’re working on, your marketing thrives on word-of-mouth and your staff love you? You’re likely one of the ‘special’ few.
  • All companies can attain specialness by focusing on providing great experiences to customers and employees.

News flash: You’re not as special as you think. Your brand is probably not as special as you think. Indeed, it might be quite ordinary. Forgettable, even.

Maybe you sell an interesting product or run a tight ship. On a personal level, you might even be a great person to work for, the living embodiment of your company’s truly compelling mission. But if all companies were as special as the people running them thought they were, then we’d have many more Apples, Teslas, and Starbuckses in the world. These companies offer customers such a holistic relationship that they transcend regular business; they sell an experience, an aspiration, a lifestyle.

One of the factors that makes companies special is that they manage to turn a want — something that you may feel a strong desire and impulse to buy, but that is not truly necessary — into what feels like an unavoidable need. People can get through the day (and have done so for millennia) without feature-laden smartphones, electric sports cars, and $6.00 Frappuccinos. Nobody really needs any of those items, and yet hundreds of millions of people feel as if they do.

So how can you tell if your company really is special? Here are four observations that might tip you off. And if you discover you’re not so special after all, these insights will provide you with some direction on how to get there.

1. Your friends and family
have workplace envy

When you or colleagues tell people where you work, does a crowd gather around to ask questions? Do people randomly ask about what your company is working on? Or when its next product release is coming out? People who work at special companies, for special brands, find this happening all the time.

For instance, people who work for the streaming music service Spotify, which has seen its subscriber base explode from 15 million in 2015 to about 100 million in early 2019, will surely be peppered with questions by friends.1 They’ll want to know when Drake is dropping a new album, or they’ll pester them for details on how customised playlists, one of the company’s core features, really work.

If you and your staff are constantly asked questions about your work by enthusiastic friends and family, it’s a sign that your brand is special.

2 You’re spending
less on media

Very few companies have been able to build their business on word of mouth or so-called earned media alone. According to Gartner’s 2017–18 CMO Spend Survey, companies with US$5 billion in sales spend more than 11 percent of their annual revenue, or $550 million, on marketing.2 A substantial chunk of that goes toward advertising and paid media.

Of course, the best (and most economically efficient) form of advertising is word of mouth. Given a choice between a brilliant 30-second ad and a host of evangelising customers who preach the gospel of your product to everyone around them, most professional marketers would choose the latter.

There are special brands that spend next to nothing on advertising. Think about Costco.3 Have you ever seen a television ad for Costco? Probably not. But chances are you’ve heard someone brag about the savings they’ve made in their aisles. While Costco spends very little money marketing itself, it has nonetheless managed to attract more than 90 million members worldwide — and an impressive 87% of those members renew each year.

The money that companies like this don’t spend on advertising is partly being spent on providing a better experience for both customers and employees.4 Costco, for instance, pays its employees more than its peers.5 Such special companies also can use funds that might be otherwise spent on billboards and radio ads on expansion and product development.

If you’re spending virtually zilch on advertising and media buys, if your ad budget is smaller than your competitors or is shrinking while your customer base and sales are growing — you’re special.

3. People love to work
for you — like, really love it

Take a quick look at your employee referrals. Are they going up? Barely existent? What about your turnover rate compared to that of your competitors? Are you spending more or less time and money on recruiting in this extremely tight labour market?

Special businesses don’t just create experiences or aspirations that make their customers feel like they need to patronise them. They also create an environment in which employees feel a strong attachment to the company. It’s a cliché for CEOs to note that their most important assets go home every night. But it is a truism that, every morning, employees have a choice. Your staff is constantly deciding whether to stay or leave.6

The ones who stay and recommend their friends and contacts in their network are probably the ones you and your leadership team have given opportunities to — opportunities to be creative and collaborative, opportunities to help push the business in new directions. They believe in the company.

If you can create a business in which people want to work, you’re not just getting the best out of existing talent — you’re able to spend much less time and money on recruiting and training new talent. Oh, and happy employees help create products and experiences that make customers feel deeply satisfied and loyal.

4. You’re not a want anymore,
you’re a must-have — a new need

It is possible to transform your company and its products from a want to a need. Apple might be the classic example. In the 1980s in competition with Microsoft, many expected Apple to fail or sputter along, even after it released its line of colourful iMacs, which gave the business a boost, in 1998.

But when the iPod was released in 2001, everything changed. Apple focused not just on making the technology special — after all, there were already mp3 players on the market — but on making the customer experience special, too. Steve Jobs intuitively understood that customer experience is vital: As the PwC Consumer Intelligence survey found, 73% of people point to customer experience as a critical factor in their purchasing decisions, and they’ll pay a premium of up to 16% for a superior customer experience.

Apple put a great deal of thought into how its customers would use its devices because the company knew people wanted something that would make them look good, too. Then came the easy-to-use ecosystem — iTunes. By the time the iPhone was released in 2007, Apple’s transformation from want — Ooh, these products are cool, I really want one! — to a need was complete. For well on a decade, iPhone devotees have been telling the world they simply can’t live without their music, their apps, their information, their photos and books, their connections. And that’s special, too.

Special is

Every company can take steps toward turning their products and services from wants into needs.

Think about how you do business. Is the customer experience the focus of everything you do? It should be. Look at every aspect of your business and make sure the customer comes first everywhere. Think about what kind of user experience it would take to turn your product into a must-have item. If you can begin to create a deep emotional connection with your customers, you’ll be on your way to becoming truly special.

This is an abridged version of an article originally published in strategy+business.


Digital Pulse David Clarke


David Clarke

David Clarke is a former partner and was the global chief experience officer for PwC.

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