Why You Must Be More Than ‘The Best Agency In The World’
“The best branding agency in the world” might just be the worst value proposition ever. Why? It’s missing the “how.” The essence of branding is not only defining what you do differently and better than your competition, but also answering the question of how.
This is something I learned at age 16 when I was running my first business. A nearly broken-down ice cream truck that I drove with my brother taught me the essentials of what branding and survival in the real world was all about. In the short span of one summer in Michigan, I went from making nothing and surviving embezzlement and frequent legal problems to making money hand over fist.
It started like this: My brother and I were your typical teenagers, and my father came up with the idea of staking us in an ice cream truck business to get us out of the house for the summer.
The problem was that there was a noise ordinance in Grosse Ile, Michigan, that prohibited ice cream trucks from playing music. I quickly learned that it was next to impossible to sell ice cream because nobody knew you were there. So after the first month with virtually no sales, my brother left to spend the rest of the summer with our mom in Pennsylvania and took all of our cash with him. Devastated, I had to ask my dad for a loan to keep going.
The first thing I did was invest in a loudspeaker so I could play music. Business exploded. You see, every other ice cream truck in town was abiding by the ordinance, but once I started playing music, I had a significant edge over my competition. I soon graduated to playing AC/DC at construction sites, pop music at high schools and circus music at elementary schools.
The money poured in. So did my legal woes. I received my first ticket at a construction site when the police cited me for disobeying the ordinance. It was funny because all the contractors heckled them for ticketing the ice cream man.
The rest of the summer was spent dodging the police, paying my fines and explaining to a sympathetic judge that I was being very mindful about where I parked so as not to endanger anyone by luring them into traffic with my music.
The first time I went to court, I noticed that the judge had a smirk on his face and gave me a ridiculously low fine. Maybe he had a soft spot for ice cream. But the entrepreneur in me quickly figured out that getting busted occasionally for playing music because of a local ordinance that even the judge thought was silly was just the cost of doing business.
This taught me about the cornerstone of branding: Articulating what I did differently and better than my competition, and how. I played music so people knew I was coming.
I also intuitively learned about marketing, customer personas and demographics. That’s why I played different types of music depending on which neighborhood I was in and who my customers were.
What I didn’t have was a nice-looking truck or a fancy logo. But at the end of the summer, I was looking at a Porsche for my first car.
It’s not enough to say that you’re the best business in your industry in the world. You also need to convince people that you’re the best. You can do that by sending out samples, winning awards, sharing testimonials and showcasing prestigious clients, but all of these are just ways of answering the question of how you’re the best.
When I tell new clients that the value proposition is what you do differently and better than your competition, the first thing 80% of them do is blurt out, “Customer service.” And they very well may have great customer service, but if 80% of them say that, then that likely isn’t really what they do better than their competition. But if it truly is, they must also answer the question of how.
I’ve found that the “how” is the most important weapon in a branding agency’s arsenal. If you can not only explain what you do differently and better than your competition but also explain how in a convincing way, then you’ll likely walk away with more business than you can handle.
Costco is my favorite example. The company offers warehouse prices on its products. How? As one writer put it, Costco’s end goal is “to cut the ‘fat’ out of traditional retail and pass on the savings to loyal customers and employees.” Everything about Costco screams its value proposition — from its name to the design of its stores.
One way to help articulate the “how” is to replace the “ands” in your value proposition with “buts” (I learned this from the creators of South Park). In the case of Costco, for example, the company could say, “We have low prices, but we have great service because we pay our employees well by keeping costs down in other ways like selling in bulk.”
What you do differently and better than your competition is the setup, and the “how” drives it home.
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