Turning the Ordinary into the Meaningful
If all this seems at times to verge on the theoretical, we'll demonstrate how meaningful experiences can transform products and services. Unfortunately, at this point in our history, there aren't many companies doing this well or consciously, so examples beyond the partial expressions from companies cited in the list above are limited.
One of the best examples is Method, a small company that decided to use this approach to challenge some of the world's most dominant and entrenched competitors in its category. Method operates in a category that fairly screams "functional"—household cleaning supplies, which is dominated by massive global companies including Procter & Gamble, Unilever, and Clorox.
Until Method appeared on the scene, household cleaning products could be defined by their glaring colors, generic shapes, large containers, and chemical smells. A blind person could easily find the cleaning aisle in any store just by following the harsh scent of disinfectants, deodorizers, and powerful cleaning agents. Anyone who introduced a "kinder, gentler" approach to cleaning was immediately relegated to the aisle reserved for poor-selling "green" products. To compete in this category, you had to be a germ-killing, grease-dissolving giant.
But Method thought differently. Co-founders Eric Ryan and Adam Lowry started by taking an ordinary experience—cleaning the house—and making it more meaningful. As Ryan says, "Our goal was to make chores less of a chore. We thought we could do this by creating experiences that expressed our consumers' love for their home and tying that to our products. If people don't have to look at cleaning as killing germs, but as doing something positive for their home, the power of the experience goes deeper than the activity. It's touching something primal."
With this grounding, Ryan and Lowry went on to invent a company they describe as "people against dirty." But their definition of "dirty" includes not just germs and grime, but also toxic chemicals, non-recyclable packaging material, and destructive production practices. They promote their products as "a cleaner way of cleaning," and each is highly effective, environmentally safe, and packaged to be physically beautiful enough to be left on a counter after it's used. Even Method's advertising is part of the experience. As Ryan explains, "Our 'People Get Dirty' campaign talks about the experience of cleaning, not the products. The number of customer emails we've received in response is groundbreaking. Customers say they are finally excited about cleaning. These products were things they dreaded buying, and now they have turned into something they want to buy."
Nice concept, but is Method successful? After only six years, Method is actually giving those giant global companies reason to be nervous. Why? Because Method's products are now sold in Costco, Target, and most recently Wal-Mart. And they sell fast.
Like their competitors, Method's cleaning products function well. Its advertising provides effective emotional ties and, to some consumers, its brand conveys status. It does what everyone else in the category does, but it provides these attributes within a context of meaning that connects with its consumers. By supporting its customers' desire for an experience of oneness and harmony, it has transformed cleaning from drudgery to a joy and overcome the perception that environmentally sound household cleaners are too weak to be effective.
Another company that benefits from connecting with its customers in a surprisingly meaningful way is Bush Beans. This mid-sized, family-owned company produces and sells a wide range of canned beans. It would be difficult to find a simpler category, and as a result, most rivals compete on price. But Bush succeeds with a different recipe—by offering the consumer the experience of connecting with family—the Bush family, to be exact. The company owners (even the family dog) are important brand assets, populating the website, starring in the ads, writing the newsletter, and generally embodying the company's emphasis on community and truth. Their beans evoke a sense of family life, and that intangible value keeps their line of beans and chili on the store shelf next to those offered by giants ConAgra, Del Monte, and Kraft.
Like Method, Bush Beans offers consumers the same function and economic value as its competitors offer, but by conveying them within the context of a meaningful experience—that of love for one's family and connectedness—the company is able to make a deeper connection with its customers.
In showcasing these two smaller companies that successfully compete against larger ones, we don't mean to imply that this approach doesn't work for larger companies. Quite the contrary. In fact, throughout this book you'll find references to large companies such as Apple Computer, Starbucks, Southwest Airlines, and others that are delivering some level of meaningful experiences to their customers. There is ample opportunity for large companies to reinvigorate their consumer connections by adopting this philosophy, as the example of OnStar demonstrates. When GM bought Hughes Aircraft Company in 1985, it seemed like an odd pairing of two different product categories with unrelated functionality. Ten years later, GM used the satellite capabilities from its Hughes acquisition in partnership with systems developer EDS to create OnStar, which it marketed as a GPS feature providing directional assistance to drivers of upscale cars. Soon after its introduction, OnStar highlighted its ability to provide "remote diagnostics" on engine performance, and then tried a concierge service that offered to help drivers buy flowers and find restaurants. It evolved again, teaming with media like Disney, Dow Jones, and ESPN to see if entertainment or information was an offering subscribers' valued. Unfortunately, all of these additions were just various functional benefits, valued differently depending on the subscriber. When OnStar really started to connect with consumers is when it repositioned itself as synonymous with "security," providing help "out of the blue" whenever a driver needed it. By aligning all its capabilities with a recognized and coveted meaning, the combination of satellites and cars finally made sense to a much larger audience.
Other large companies could follow suit. Thanks to its heritage and reputation for quality, Sears could convincingly deliver on wisdom, truth, and maybe even community by rethinking its role in a neighborhood or what common value unites it many products and services. Could SBC Communications evoke enlightenment or freedom by unifying and elevating the diverse functional benefits of phone service and DSL connections? Could Hewlett-Packard really deliver a sense of creation beyond its clever "Invent" campaign if its products and services were less associated with productivity and work?
Any company can take an ordinary experience that offers functional, economic, or emotional values and increase the significance level to that of meaning. However, it usually requires reversing the order of its traditional development process to start with understanding customers rather than an understanding of materials, functions or identity. In the next several chapters, we'll go into the details of doing this successfully.