Character: We develop Characters and Story Frameworks for brands.

Something to Buy Into

I've been thinking a lot recently about handy tools marketers can use to test their brands for latent story energy. One idea--of which I was reminded by the new Starbucks print advertising--is to ask yourself this:

Does my brand offer its customers something to buy into, or just something to buy?

What I like about this question is that it immediately separates a brand with real equity from a commodity. At the end of the day, if all you are offering your customer is a specific thing to buy for a certain amount of money, it is very difficult to develop any pricing leverage and you have no way to engage any loyalty on the part of your customers. (If you have a patent on the thing you are selling you can charge a premium as long as the patent lasts, but that's not brand equity, that is just a temporary government-licensed monopoly.)

Of course, some stories are deeper and more compelling than others. When Walmart was a scrappy little challenger from Arkansas its story was lifeline for working families trying to get by on a budget. That story, given credibility by Walmart's ability to bring brand name merchandise to small towns at surprisingly low prices, built a successful business and--for a while--a brand that customers across small town America felt connected to. In the years after Sam Walton died the business grew but the story got shallower until, by the middle of this decade, the only thing Walmart was asking its customers to buy into was its ability to deliver the absolute lowest price--no matter what the cost to the towns, the employees, the suppliers or the community as a whole.

In the past couple of years Walmart has once again asked its audience to buy into the idea that its size and its capabilities can be a force for good in the world. Functionally, Walmart still has to deliver low prices in order to have a relationship with its customers at all, but the meaning of its story has gone from deeper to shallower to deeper again--with dramatic consequences for the value of its brand and the success of its business.

I'm interested in what you think of this idea as a tool for uncovering some of the key story currents running through your brand.

I look forward to hearing from you.


Hey David-
I think it's a great thought.
Some clients that tend to be more promotions-based would be served well by examining their brand in this way.

I like to judge brands by whether they pass the t-shirt test: would I wear the logo on a t-shirt because of what it's come to stand for?
Ex: people wear t-shirts with an Apple logo on them, but not "Dell" ones.

I guess WalMart would have trouble passing that test, but that whole category isn't exactly t-shirt friendly, huh?

Marc — I’m glad you like this idea. I love the t-shirt test!

Three years ago, before their new campaign, Old Spice never would have had the cachet to open an online swag store! Marc, Old Spice is taking your “t-shirt test” to heart!