People design

I was talking to Toby today about some project, and that conversation reminded me of something that I thought was pretty smart: Nike+ Active, which I noticed a few weeks back when the new iPod nano was launched. What, in fact, attracted my attention was not the system itself (I have same old objections), but its main underlying business/experience premise: not everyone is a runner, but everyone can walk (well, almost everyone), so why not create something for this “everyone” and then — over time, and in incremental steps — turn them into runners?

There’s more. Apparently, this kind of “incremental steps” thinking penetrates other industries, and among them, the least likely candidate of all: luxury fashion. I came across this article today, where Burberry’s CEO talks about why they’re launching a social network for trenchcoats (kidding. it’s for people with trenchcoats ;), and her point is, verbatim: “These might not even be customers yet. Or they may be a customer for a bottle of fragrance or for eyewear.”

This kind of evolutionary thinking is, while not entirely new to marketing (customer lifecycle path has been around since forever, after all) is nevertheless groundbreaking in the sense that it doesn’t target brand customers — it targets the brand’s customers-to-be. Everyone’s included.

It works something like this: start from a truly broad audience, monitor its behavior, make a product or a workout routine recommendation (how about you walk at a slightly faster pace today? next thing, you know, you’re running. or, how about this nice scarf to go with those Burberry glasses of yours? what happens next, you are head-to-toe in Burberry, trenchcoat included), then make some more customized recommendations, and, in that way, create the brand’s audience. There’s something for everyone, after all.

Think of it as “people design”. A brand literally designs a runner from an ordinary unsuspecting individual. Burberry brand designs a Burberry woman or man by training any human being (willing to spend thousands of dollars) in style, quality, fit, aesthetics, prestige, status, etc. Over time, this kind of education pays off.

Or, in the Systems language it works like this: the more people interact with a brand, the more brand learns about them, the more it has to offer, and in return, the more people evolve into that brand’s customers. What it takes is: a) making the first step as accessible as possible and b) making progress as incremental as possible.

Everyone’s talking only about designing products and services to fit people better, whereas at the same time happens the parallel process of designing people to use those products and services.

And this is very different from traditional marketing and its customer categories (even the name “categories” suggests something discreet, separate, and mutually exclusive). In comparison, here, everyone’s going to have a great number of overlapping phases. What’s common to a marathon runner and me is that we both perform the motions of running. it’s a matter of degree in which we do that where we become different. A loyal Burberry customer is very likely to share a few of the great number of Burberry items that she/he posses with someone who has only those few items. Again, these are different points on a continuum of Burberry-ness, or on a continuum of running fitness.

When you think about it, most of customer categorizations from the past worked “before the fact” (i.e. before a person had an actual, real life experience with a product or a service). Targets were selected based on the assumptions founded on their history (“if it’s a mom, then she must like …”). There are thousands of moms, and all of them have their own patterns of doing things. At the end of the day, you never can predict who is going to become loyal to your brand, until, well, they already become loyal.

Every journey begins with a single step, and all that stuff.

Originally published on September 17, 2009