Building a brand is one of the goals of every business. The clearer defined your brand is, the easier it is to acquire new customers and retain existing one’s. (Presuming your not a one-time service, like permanent hair-removal.)

A brand is essentially a promise to the customer. To act a certain way, to deliver a certain service or product, to provide some level of value. And to do that consistently over time. Because the competition never sleeps, you’ll also need to be consistently improving over time.

This is the theory, at least.

In reality, most customers feel that companies don’t deliver on their promise. An often quoted survey says, that while 80% of companies feel they deliver a valuable service, only 8% of their customers agree. Yet, despite this, many very mediocre companies grow, are profitable and successful. The reason for this is stickiness.

Simply put, it is a hassle to change banks, insurance companies, mobile operators, tax departments and so on. And, since with any luck, the customer has to only interact with any of the above once a year, they stick around hoping that maybe they won’t have to deal with any problems.

However, if the accelerating technology change has shown anything, it is that no company can remain complacent. Disruption will eventually reach you and if your brand stands for “Mmehh” then you will lose your customers.

Take a simple test

Ask your customers, what would be their alternative, if you couldn’t serve them. If you don’t see stress in their eyes and doubt written all over their face, but instead get a quick answer, then you are in trouble. Few companies (that is, brands) have fans. When Coke changed their recipe in the 80’s, people were physically and visibly upset and stocked up on the original. A Tesla driver will have a really hard time going back to a dinosaur-goo-fuelled car. There are few service providers around the world, as consistent as McDonald’s (whether you like them or not). Unfortunately, for every consistent and improving experience, there are probably a 1000 times more “so what” experiences, which we tolerate because the competition for whatever service that is, is probably just as lousy.

Brand building has been something that has been the responsibility of the marketing department. It has become a line in the annual budget and considered just one, sometimes not very important function, of the business. However, the successful brands around the world, that don’t just say the right things in communication, but also deliver through the customer experience, tend to have marketing anchored on the board level or even with the CEO (Elon Musk / Steve Jobs / Ray Kroc), that views everything the company does as part of the marketing mix.

Standing for brand, being responsible for the customer experience, and understanding the importance of it for the success of the business allows some companies to rapidly and effectively differentiate themselves in a crowded market space, while still essentially providing, at the core, a me-too product. Yes, it can be cutting edge and unique initially. But the competition always catches up and makes the physical differences irrelevant in the long run. The most important aspect, however, remains the end-to-end customer experience, which is much more complicated to copy than the design and features on a smart phone.

And as products and services cycle down from being unique and valuable to becoming essentially a commodity, what is it that keeps some businesses growing and relevant while others whither and die? You guessed it: a customer experience that people can remember and talk about. At the end of the day, it’s not about what you do, but how you do it, that is your brand. And that means the whole company from top to bottom has to do it the same way and it can no longer be just the marketing department that is charged with explaining to customers, how you (should) do it.

Service design. Welcome to the new marketing reality.