Is there a difference between a brand and a product? Are they interchangeable? Which should come first? Should there even be a difference? These questions are hotly debated amongst co-founders building their companies in coffee shops to people on blogs and Tumblr pages offering their opinion. The short answer to these questions is yes; there is a BIG difference between a brand and a product. A brand is unique with the potential to become timeless whereas a product has a specific function for a moment in time. For a longer form explanation, you’ll need to read on.
The most obvious distinction between a brand and a product is that brands emotionally connect with its customers by expressing its core values and mission. For Example, Nike’s mission is “to bring inspiration and innovation to every athlete* in the world”. Under Steve Jobs, Apple’s mission was “to make a contribution to the world by making tools for the mind that advance humankind.” Products, on the other hand, perform a specific function to fulfill a customer’s immediate needs. Nike’s products are athletic shoes and clothing and Apple designs software and hardware for computers. The products are essentially commodities you can buy running shoes and computers from just about anyone, but customers choose Nike or Apple because they connect to the brand.
If you are in the early stages of starting a company you should really focus on creating a great brand followed by a great product. This doesn’t mean your initial product should suck. The reason I recommend that you prioritize developing a brand over your product is because the customer will initially gravitate to you because of your purpose not necessarily because of your product. The author of Start with Why, Simon Sinek says, “people don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.” Also, great products eventually get copied. Tory Burch was the first company to popularize the ballet flats, Ralph Lauren built his brand on the Polo, Supreme is known for the box logo t-shirts. Nowadays every brand offers a version of the ballet flat, polo shirt, and box logo t-shirt, but Ralph Lauren, Tory Burch and Supreme are still very relevant and iconic brands.
At Rockridge, our mission is to design clothes for individuals who drive the world forward. Everything we do starts from this point-of-view—challenging the status quo. Our initial product is an Oxford cloth cotton button-down with a twist that’s made in Brooklyn, New York with a portion of our profits going to help homeless and at-risk youth reclaim their lives. We believe that the quality of our button-down is right up there with Rag and Bone, Thom Browne or Brooks Brothers Black Fleece and at a fraction of the price.
Another reason building a great brand is valuable is because it helps you develop a positive reputation with your customers. A great brand is about more than cool products; there’s also customer service, return and shipping policy, user experience and other areas important to customers to consider as well. A positive brand reputation is important because it reveals what your customers and the general public will think about you. The fashion industry is a crowded market and your brand reputation can further distinguish you from your competitors and help build brand awareness. Amazon, Warby Parker, Patagonia, and Tesla are a few companies that take their brands seriously. These companies are very customer-centric and do a great job offering premium services that their customers love.
Now here’s a tricky question to consider: If you can’t manage to develop a great brand and product, which one should you choose to focus on. There are two schools of thought to consider when answering this question. One approach is product focused and the other is brand focused. People who are product focused will tell you that you should focus all your efforts on building the best product in the marketplace. It’s simple, logical and there are a ton of examples to learn from. However, brand focused people will say that there is no such thing as a great product that’s it’s just a matter of perception. And once a brand establishes a positive perception with its customer it’s very difficult to change their minds. Red Bull has the reputation of being the best energy drink and Harley Davidson makes the best motorcycle. Developing a better tasting energy drink or building a better motorcycle is not hard, but that won’t necessarily change the connection people have with these brands.
Today’s world is very noisy and complicated; the opportunity to get anyone to pay attention to what you are doing is very limited. Building a strong brand identity is even more critical if you want to have a relevant company for years to come. Be clear communicating what your brand stands for and your core values. Last, but not least products do matter. They are the physical representation of what your brand stands for. It has to embody your core values and mission. When it does you can build something cool like Footwear Company Common Projects and when your product is not in alignment you’ll disappear like American Apparel.
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