A few weeks ago I posted the question, What Business Are You In? I got lots of answers, both on and off the comment section of the blog. Many of them were very insightful — most readers understand that the reason their customers buy from them is often quite different from the function of the product they're selling.
All of this conversation got me thinking, what business are we in? The easy answer is that we're in the brand building business – that is, we make our clients' products and services more valuable by changing customers' perception of what our clients sell.
But the historically honest answer is a little more complicated.
Around the turn of the century, my business partner, Roberto, and I came to a startling revelation: after more that 15 years in business, we finally realized that we weren't going to be able to build the greatest advertising agency in the world. There were a lot of reasons why, of course, but a few of the ones that stood out were, 1) There are just too many client verticals for us to be experts in, 2) there are too many really good agencies out there, 3) neither Roberto nor I nor our management team had all of the skills necessary to dominate every single market, and finally, 4) how do you define “best” to begin with?
Instead of giving up, we decided to look at the situation a different way. If we couldn't be the greatest agency in all areas, was there an area that we could indeed establish superiority? Just as importantly, was there an area where we had already established proof of concept? And finally, if we chose an area, could we make a difference there both financially and personally?
Our history suggested that travel and tourism was the perfect business sector for us. We already had great experience and demonstrated our branding chops, having built business-changing campaigns for Miami, Kissimmee, the Mississippi Gulfcoast, Springfield, Missouri, LAN Chile, Aviateca, TACA airlines, Radisson Seven Seas Cruises, and more. And while there were some agencies specializing in this area, none had established leadership.
But there was another reason.
I've printed this Mark Twain quote before, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts alone. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one's lifetime.”
But did you know that nearly 125 years later, Maya Angelou answered Twain? “Perhaps travel cannot prevent bigotry, but by demonstrating that all peoples cry, laugh, eat, worry, and die, it can introduce the idea that if we try and understand each other, we may even become friends.”
Reading both of these muses, Roberto and I strongly believed that expanded tourism could make the world a better place. And we could help with that.
But we all know what Burns said happens to “the best-laid schemes o' mice an' men.” Even though we built a robust tourism practice and added significant clients and revenue to our business, 9/11 and subsequent world events conspired against anyone who specialized in getting people to fly around the world.
Lucky for us, our good client and good friend Michael Earley, CEO of Metropolitan Health Networks, Inc., explained the metrics and demographics of the burgeoning health care business. Based on Mike's schooling, we saw fit to build on our medical experience (Jackson Memorial Hospital, Community Health Plans, Oral Health Services, Symphony Health Partners, and more) by adding a health care practice. And then we realized that recent events in the financial services sector also presented us with great opportunities and so we leveraged our experience with companies including American Express, Citi, Charles Schwab, and more to expand our reach in that arena.
What we never realized, though, was how similar the marketing strategies of these three experiential business sectors were. At its simplest level, businesses in the travel and tourism sector promise this: Come visit us. You'll feel welcome. We'll show you something wonderful (our assets — beaches, waterfalls, shops and restaurants, culture, etc.). And you'll leave a better person (you'll be more worldly, more relaxed, thinner, tanner, or whatever).
Similarly, health care companies invite people to: Come visit us. You'll feel welcome. We'll show you something wonderful (our assets — physicians, equipment, programs, etc.). And you'll leave a better person (you'll be healed or healthier).
What do banks and investment companies say? Come visit us. You'll feel welcome. We'll show you something wonderful (our assets — investment programs, analysts, security protocols, etc.). And you'll leave a better person (you'll be safer and wealthier).
What we discovered is that regardless of whether we're selling vacations, health plans, or investments, we're really in the business of selling experiences. And even when we're selling products — Bacardi rums and other drinks, for example — we're not actually selling the liquid in the bottles; instead we're selling the experience of consuming the products and how that experience transforms our clients' customers.
And so our old answer — we build brand value — now includes the experiential aspect. Today, we say, “We make our clients' products and services more valuable by changing their customers' perception of the brand experience.”
I suspect that with a little introspection you'll find that you don't sell what your customers buy either, but that you do something similar to what we do. That is, you sell the results that your products or services provide. And even if your concern is not commercial but revolves around being a best parent, the best not-for-profit, or the best at whatever it is you do — you'll find that it's the result of the experience you offer that matters to your end users.
And whether you find that to be true or not, I'd love to hear your thoughts.