Does Nike make the best running shoes in the world?
Does Starbucks serve the best coffee?
Does Warby Parker design the best reading glasses?
Does Dollar Shave Club sell the best razors?
Does IKEA sell the best furniture?
Objectively, the answer is no. But ‘best’ is rarely objective.
– Bernadette Jiwa in her article When subjectivity wins.
there is an interesting paradox in the way we look at branding. on the one hand, we are aware that our work requires us to dive deep into the emotional, intangible, and unpredictable. on the other, most branding experts build the expectation that their daily grind should follow a linear, foreseeable path. too often, the magic of the subjective experience is set aside in favor of algorithms, trends, and seemingly-objective, superficially-interpreted data. all these elements may help the organization’s ego – just check how many companies say they are “data-driven” nowadays. but it won’t further the development of real relationships with their fans. instead of focusing only on the objective side of our branding work, we should integrate it in building beautiful and meaningful subjective experiences – the type that will last longer and mean more to people.
we don’t like something because it is “the best”. we fall in love with brands because they fit in our story at a specific time and in a specific context. but shaking off the current trend of maximizing objective brand assets in detriment to the subjective side might seem easier said than done. in the end, most marketing and branding teams commit to delivering certain time-bound and budget-restricted results for their organizations. generally, those results come in the shape of numbers – which are concrete and objective pieces of information: how many views a video got, how many impressions a campaign acquired, how many new subscribers does the company newsletter have. but those numbers only tell a minuscule side of the full engagement story between a company and their fans. those metrics are a goal-post, not the actual playing field. in order to get to the next level of brand engagement, we need a change in outlook.
a big clue in helping us evolve our current mindset can be found in the psychological concept known as value attribution. if you can get to understand why people choose one thing over the other, and how they create and keep this connection, then you are ready to unlock the power of your brand.
value attribution is the process through which we direct our attention and appreciation towards an object. people attribute value to something that contributes to and resonates with some part of their being.
this phenomenon is always contextual and time-bound, aka subjective. the value we give to something or someone can stay the same or it can change. for example, what you found interesting at the age of 10 might not rekindle the same soul-lifting flame in your 30s or 40s. also, the object you attributed a certain type of value to in the past might have changed its place in your value attribution hierarchy. for example, a boy can feel attached to his fireman truck because of the imaginative power that the toy brings (the boy starts to think of himself as an adventurous, brave firefighter). fast-forward into the future, the same toy will end up conjuring waves of nostalgia and vulnerability in the now 60-year-old grownup man. we are talking about the same object and the same person. the only difference is that the context and time have changed, sometimes dramatically. the result of this shift is that we get to witness two very different emotional interactions around the toy. and these emotional states mold the person’s eventual brand perception and future actions regarding the toy.
the more we value something, the more likely we are to willingly pay a higher price for it, via our attention, time, money, etc.
value attribution is also one of our most important attention filters that we have as human beings. it is what prompts your fans to choose you out of a huge options selection. and what is important to note is that this filter might contain need-based, rational reasons for connecting with a brand, but it is also composed of many irrational, subjective, even unconscious layers. to form real bonds between your brand and its audience, this is the realm you need to tap into.
the good news for branding experts and anyone planning to roll out a brand is that value comes in unlimited doses. as mentioned by The neuroscience of creativity author, Anna Abraham, “there are potentially unlimited ways in which we could construe value or appropriateness as this differs as a function of context and time.”
the “bad” news is that you can’t create fake value. that is why brands with the most colorful design, happiest message or fanciest presentation aren’t automatically successful just due to those elements. if their pieces don’t fall into place with the main brand narrative, if they are not a part of the more meaningful, bigger picture, they won’t appeal to their fullest capacity. people will be wow-ed for a couple of minutes (or seconds, given our declining attention span), and then, they will move on. that, in turn, will make you feel you need to work harder for your customer acquisition and retention. that is how you’ll fall into a vicious cycle, for your brand and those who are busy building it in the background. what you really need is a mind shift in the way you do things.
this approach is what gave Patagonia, an outdoor clothing and gear company, the branding edge that it is enjoying today. from an objective, product perspective, they sell boots, coats, pants, and the like. but what people end up buying is so much more than just a cozy winter jacket. those who fall in love with Patagonia do so because of their purpose, community, and the way they do things. and we can thank the people behind the brand for this achievement, because they stuck to their guns when it came to strategy principles and ways of working.
you won’t get to see any annoying ads on behalf of Patagonia, nudging you to buy something from their latest spring collection. what you will hear from them instead is news about the company’s latest efforts in protecting and appreciating nature. they love and respect the great outdoors. It is what inspired them to create the brand in the first place. Patagonia puts all its efforts into respecting the promise of catering to our planet by building environmental-friendly campaigns, educational documentaries, and supporting purposeful movements within their field. they also foster loyalty by respecting their own customers via top-notch, quality products.
this subjective, intangible-infused approach works. it trickles down into Patagonia’s tangible targets, goals, and products. and people love it.
especially in the case of retailers that produce real-life goods, we are inclined to think that their business success will come from selling as many items as they can, in the shortest time possible. but Patagonia operates with the exact opposite mindset. they produce high-quality pieces, either clothing or gear, that will last some very good years in your closet. and what they are selling, or better said, what they are promoting is a mindful and more nature-appreciative lifestyle. the best part is that they walk the talk, in both their conceptual drive (see their manifesto), and in what they actually do. are they objectively the best outdoor clothing maker on the market? probably not. but that is not what matters to the hundreds of thousands that believe in them and love their brand.
the linearity of outcome stems directly from embracing the emotional, subjective experience with the brand. this is a lesson that more branding specialists and managers should take to heart, using companies like Patagonia as inspirational examples. this is what will make the difference in the 21st century for your brand.
so, find out what kinds of value your brand creates. where are those subjective, emotionally-important interactions in your customer experience? start talking with top fans, returning customers, passionate employees, your product or experience makers. find out what they genuinely appreciate about your brand. most likely, you will discover new ways of seeing your product or service, which, in turn, will freshen up your perspective on your work as a brand manager or specialist.
don’t ignore the subjective. that is where real magic happens for your fans, your brand, and your business.