Building Brands with 5 W’s and an H

The other weekend I went for a walk in Golden Gate Park with a friend and her stroller-bound daughter. It’s been quite a few years since my own kids were young, and while the experience was familiar I could also take it in from a fresh perspective. As we walked along the shores of Stowe Lake, her daughter gave us a lesson in how children take in the world:

“Mommy, why is that bird sitting on one foot?”
“Where do you think the geese sleep at night?”
“How did the big rock get all the way up the hill?”

While this form of inquiry is familiar in children, it’s also a big part of how we learn as adults. Anyone who has ever taken a journalism course has learned a version of the 5 W’s and an H. It’s a trusted framework for news, research, and storytelling. But it’s also an intuitive way to think about how to connect with your customers, understand what they need, and find new ways to deepen your bonds with them.

Ask “Who?”

Who are you for? Who are you not for? This might seem obvious at first, but it’s something that’s not always thoughtfully re-examined as part of a brand strategy refresh. In B2B brand positioning, this might mean deciding to focus on a new primary target within the organization (e.g., shift from selling lower in the org to higher). In B2C brand positioning, this might mean getting more specific about who you serve: for example, shifting from being “For Travelers” to being “For Business Travelers” or “For Vacationers with Children”’). This clarity brings a great deal of focus, not only in shaping your brand but your entire product offering.

Ask “What?”

Knowing your customer means being clear on what matters to them. What are the gaps in the current experience? What are the greatest pain points? What is wrong with the status quo? These ‘What’ questions can lead to the insights required to refresh a non-differentiated product or redefine the status quo within a category. (For a terrific example of the latter, look at AirBnB’s recent relaunch — instead of asking people “Where do you want to go?” they’re asking “What kind of experience do you want to have?”, effectively shifting their value from functional to experiential.)

Ask “When and Where?”

This isn’t what you might think. ‘Where’ is not where your customer lives or where you might reach them with messages or marketing. This is “When and where should you show up in customers’ lives?” Should your brand be omnipresent or appear only when the context heightens your relevance? This can apply to how your customers encounter your brand’s halo in the world (e.g. advertising, sponsorships, or social good), how frequently you communicate with them, and the brand experience of interacting with your products and services.

Ask “Why?”

Asking ‘Why should customers prefer us?’ is asking why your products or services are different and better than your competitors. Or why, when given a choice, customers should choose to do business with you (even at a premium). Maybe you’re easier to do business with. Or perhaps you have brand values that align with your customers’. “Why” should identify the advantage that differentiates you and makes you unique.

Ask “How?”

Your secret sauce shouldn’t be entirely a secret
Finally, it’s time to ask “How?” Not “How do we reach people?” or “How do we execute our strategy?”, but “How do we want to make people feel?” Do you want them to feel safe? Smart? Secure? Joyful? Inspired? Accomplished? When you think about your customers through this lens, you identify your brand’s emotional core, adding an additional dimension of differentiation, and a unique way to forge deeper, more meaningful connections with your customers.

In short, it’s all about asking the questions that will let you understand who your customer is, what they need, and how your business can not only meet those needs, but create an emotional connection with them while doing so.

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