Serial entrepreneur Ted Stearns.
Serial entrepreneur Ted Stearns.

By Ted Stearns

A few years back when I launched InsureWell, I remember having a headful of conversations with marketing companies that asked one question enough times for me to ponder its importance and to develop a thoughtful response. The questions was, “If your company were a car, what kind of car would it be, what model and what options would it have, would it be a gas hungry Hummer or a thoughtful Prius?

Two other questions always followed: “What makes InsureWell special?” and “How are you different from the competition?

Yet these questions haven’t sat right with me. Aren’t these questions too introspective as if we we’re sitting down being asked them by a psychotherapist? Is that what business is about, analyzing oneself? Is it about getting to know us, or getting to know our customers and what they want?

OR IS OUR MISSION TO PROVIDE AN OUTLET FOR OUR CUSTOMERS TO FEEL GOOD ABOUT THEMSELVES? MUCH LIKE GOING TO A GRIPPING PLAY OR AN EMOTIONAL MOVIE, HOW DOES THE BRAND MAKE US FEEL?

Think about his: how do we feel when we purchase a venti coffee from Starbucks from a smiling happy-to-see you barista who I like to think knows me by name. Then as I walk hurriedly down the sidewalk exhibiting my hot coffee with an oversized logo for everyone to see, how does it make me feel? I admit, sometimes when I get to the office and plant the cup on my desk I stare at my name on the side of the cup and it reads “TED,” as if Ted just conquered a monumental task of getting coffee. It makes me feel proud, assured and affluent.

My point is that Starbucks has done a hell of a job making me feel good, all because of a $2 cup of coffee!

Good branding and marketing is about ingratiating yourself to your customers by creating an environment for them to feel good about themselves and the choices they have made in your presence.

IT IS ABOUT UNDERSTANDING WHAT THEY NEED TO FEEL GOOD, SMART AND IMPORTANT — AND THEN GIVING IT TO THEM.

Great, carefully-constructed brands want you to feel passionate about their brand performance. When a brand is constructed right, you want to believe it is all about your uniqueness for their iPhone, or Harley or Starbucks coffee.

How else could a reclusive, number-crunching accountant hang up his tie for leather boots, chaps and a $40,000 Harley and feel like a “rebel” on the weekend? Because, like a brilliant director, great companies know how to pull you in and know how they want you to feel when you purchase their products or services.

It’s really all about you.

Over coffee (Starbucks) I was speaking to my friend Christopher Frewin with the Frewin Design Group about how marketing companies want you to think that branding is all about “the brand promise.” Really? So all we have to do is engage people with a line of communication about what our organization’s brand promise is?

The two of us agreed that great branding wasn’t about that. It forced us to think about what the Starbucks brand promise is, then to try to think of Coke’s then Harley’s. Then we were musing over Apple’s. The fact is, Christopher and I couldn’t think of any of their brand promises.

What we could think about is how they make us feel when we buy their brand.

WELL THOUGHT-OUT BRANDS DO NOT MAKE PROMISES. WHAT THEY DO IS CAREFULLY CONSTRUCT WHAT YOUR EXPECTATIONS SHOULD BE, AND THEN THEY FULFILL THEM.

Harley wants you to feel like a rebel. Nike wants you to feel like a true winner. Apple wants you to feel intellectual and enlightened.

I am not suggesting that the most important thing is image and that the attributes of service are immaterial. To the contrary, going to Trader Joe’s to buy organic food makes me feel like a caring dad, or buying a Prius makes me feel like I am doing my job to make the environment a more pleasant place for my daughter. Good branding is about how we make our clients feel, and how our brand resonates with them.

It is how we make our customers feel. Don’t try to figure out of you are a Ferrari or a Ford, it doesn’t matter. Instead focus on ingratiating yourself to your customers by helping them feel good about their choice to do business with you. Over time, that valuable and unique way will become your brand identity.


Ted Stearns is a serial entrepreneur with successful startups and exits. He founded InsureWell, the nation’s largest distributor of disability insurance online, and is currently launching a new venture which is operating in stealth mode.