Your customers aren’t buying your products

I don’t mean your customers are no longer buying your products. Because if they aren’t buying from you anymore they are no longer customers. And that’s a different blog post.

I mean the main reason your customers bought from you in the first place–and the reason they continue to buy from you–isn’t because you have the best products. In fact, the retail industry’s relentless and nearly single-minded focus on product is the main reason so many retailers are in trouble. So-called “merchant prince” Mickey Drexler of J. Crew finally admitted this.

But it’s always been true. People buy the story before they buy the product. And they continue to carry our handbag, wear the hat with the swoosh, come to our restaurant or wait in line for the next version of our stuff because of how they feel when they experience our product or service. And that goes way beyond the objective, rational superiority of our features and benefits.

While I am hardly the first person to make this point, every time I make it I invariably get challenged on my lack of merchandising skill (guilty) or how I just can’t see how critical good product is. If these people only drink tap water I tend to listen a bit more carefully. But that doesn’t make them right.

Here’s the thing. I’ve never said product is unimportant. But when we confuse necessary with sufficient, we are on our way to making some big mistakes.

Brand success is most often determined at the intersection of desire and scarcity. You may sell what I want (or need), but if it isn’t special I’m not buying it (or I’m only buying it from you because you have the lowest price).

For most customers, in most categories, good product is far from scarce. A truly remarkable experience, a feeling that move us and that we are compelled to tell others about? Well that is very much in short supply.

Perhaps you DO need to improve your products. But if I were a betting person, I’d wager you also need to tell a better story.

It matters which you choose to prioritize.

Tell a better story

You sell a product that is losing out to Amazon on price and convenience?

Stop chasing your tail in the pursuit of ever lower prices or fanciful plans to get into the same-day delivery business. Tell a better story; one rooted in deep customer relevance and remarkability.

You run a non-profit that has trouble getting the attention of large donors?

Stop trotting out endless statistics and convoluted theories of change. Tell a better story, one that connects emotionally, paints a clear picture of a brighter future and inspires hope in a new and different way.

You see yourself as someone who has to do something to prove their worthiness?

Stop repeating the false narrative of victimhood or original sin. Tell a better story, one that rejects the abusive programming from your childhood and one that embraces the gifts of imperfection.

I get it. Facts can’t diverge from an experienced reality forever. But far fewer things are actually facts than we tend to think. And besides, data without a soul, an inspiration or an ultimate hero, is often meaningless.

Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but it’s a lousy business strategy.

You may feel like you have facts on your side, but hearts and minds (and wallets) rarely open up to the overwhelming force of logic.

The best way to claim our worthiness–to believe we are enough, we have enough and we that do enough-is to buy into the story until it rings true. Until it becomes habit.

People buy the story before they buy the product.

If nobody’s buying the product (even when that product is you) maybe the time you spend trying to be like everyone else or burnishing your PowerPoint would be better spent crafting a better story, believing in it and watching it spread.

If you accepted the truth would you change your mind?

Regular prices at many retail stores are fictional and we only pay them if we are naive or careless. Still we pat ourselves on the back for how much we saved during the last big sale.

We choose the salad at the fast food joint when the burger is actually the healthier option.

Most products at outlet stores were never sold through the full-price channel, yet we feel good about how we’ve out-smarted the system by shopping there instead of at the mall.

We stay in relationships we suspect aren’t good for us, but we don’t probe deeply enough to get the answers that would confirm it–and ultimately compel us to make a change.

We vote for politicians whose deeds don’t line up with their creeds or whose actions are objectively grounds for disqualification.

An entire hugely profitable industry exists around the idea of “hope in a jar”, despite few beauty products actually working. And most of the really expensive ones don’t perform any better than the cheap drugstore versions.

It’s not a new idea that emotion frequently trumps logic. We often buy the story before we buy the product.

Maybe we’ve entered a post-fact era?

Maybe we can’t handle the truth?

It’s one thing to be ignorant and blissfully unaware, harming no one or yourself.

It’s another to challenge ourselves to understand how denial serves us when the stakes are quite a bit higher.






Never underestimate the power of a symbol

Donald Trump is a lout and oafish buffoon. He may be a good business person, but he is wholly unqualified to be President and, thankfully, just about everyone knows it. Bernie Sanders is smarter and clearly demonstrates a capacity for empathy and self-awareness that The Donald sorely lacks. But he’s not going to be President either. Yet both are generating a lot–or as Trump would say, “yuge”–amount of attention.

And the reason is this: they are both powerful symbols.

Symbols of the frustration that so little gets done in Washington. Symbols of being fed up with politicians that are more concerned with avoiding a gaffe than speaking the truth. Symbols of the fear over where America is headed, even if their takes are polar opposites. And their potential impact as symbols should not be taken lightly.

Symbols matter because they tell a story that goes beyond the mere facts, the puts and takes, the purely rational and what may seem most expedient in the moment.

Symbols matter…

…when as people others look up to, we speak out against injustice and immorality even if some people won’t like it or us.

…when as business people, we do the right thing on behalf of a customer even if it is unprofitable in the short-term.

…when as parents, we model the behavior we wish our children to emulate even if, in the moment, they don’t “get it.”

…when as leaders of organizations we celebrate noble failures even if we had hoped for a different tangible result.

…when as human beings, we look each other in the eyes and simply connect even if it feels awkward and uncomfortable.

Symbols often rise above the typical narrative and tap into something more visceral.

Symbols remind us that people buy the story before they buy the product.