Among the countless decisions woven into the fabric of a brand, one question rarely gets the dedication it deserves: Should the brand (or product, or service) be postured as elite, only available to the select few that cherish the high-end experience? Or should it be priced and distributed primarily for mass consumption and convenience?
The difference is easy to grasp when you consider your spending habits. When you pay for Hamilton tickets, boutique hotels, or Michelin-starred restaurants, you’re siding with high-end experience. Big price tags and hours spent waiting in line are insignificant barriers to membership in an exclusive club. We all have memories that have left lasting imprints, powerful enough that, years later, we can still see, hear, smell, and feel the experience. One such memory for me is of a particular night in June of 1985: a temperate evening, a packed lawn, an electric performance, and thousands of hoarse voices in the making. Thirty years later, that Bruce Springsteen: Breathless in Paris ticket stub remains one of my most prized mementoes.
On the other hand, when you shop at H&M, stream music online, or buy knock-off jewelry, you’re opting for mass convenience: the ease of getting and paying for a product. You likely are less concerned about the quality of your purchase than its affordability and availability.
Whether a brand goes high-end (like Nordstorm’s or Apple iPhone) or high convenience (like Wal-Mart or Spotify), an inherent compromise exists. (For more on this debate, see Kevin Maney’s book The Trade-Off.) But one side is not necessarily superior; success is possible with either identity. What matters is that a choice is made, and that subsequent decisions support it. A brand that neglects this critical juncture (or seeks to be “everything to everyone”) falls into a popular competitive trap, which its revenue curve will eventually reveal.
Embracing Your Brand’s Identity Crisis
This debate changed the entire trajectory of a Techstars company I mentored a few years ago. Early on, I sensed that Digital Ocean, a cloud computing provider for developers, was in the midst of a consumer identity crisis. When asked whether they sought to be high-end or high convenience, the founders were optimistic about being both. Like many others, they sought to strike the elusive balance between high-end experience and mass convenience.
I challenged the team to reconsider the question. Eventually, they concluded that for the customers they really wanted, mass convenience mattered more. They then reframed their intent to provide cloud servers to as many people as possible. Having landed at that decision, Digital Ocean moved forward on all fronts, even letting go of a few large corporate clients that no longer aligned with its mission. Fast forward four years to today, and Digital Ocean is worth over a billion dollars—having stayed true to their commitment in the high-end vs. high convenience trade-off.
If you came to my office seeking advice on your brand, this is what I’d recommend: First, get a copy of Maney’s book, study the trade off between high-end experience and mass convenience, and perform a detailed analysis on your brand. Who are your best customers, and how do they see your brand? Where do they buy your brand, and is that retailer or channel high-end or mass convenience? Next, study your competitors. Where do they fall? If most are in mass convenience, choosing high fidelity might be a huge opportunity, and vice versa. Finally, organize your business and invest in your ability to innovate and stay ahead of those on the side you have chosen.
Either way, be great!