If products give us what we want, do brands tell us what we need?
Brands that give us both what we want and what we need are enriching
It’s 2001. Billy Beane is the manager of the Oakland Athletics baseball team, which has just lost an elimination game. Oakland Athletics won’t be going through to the championship.
To say that Billy Beane is frustrated is an understatement. To make matters worse, rich teams like the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox are poaching his players.
The owner of Oakland Athletics doesn’t exactly share Billy Beane’s ambitions. “We are not going to compete against these teams that have big budgets. We are going to work within the constraints that we have. And you are going to do the best job that you can.”
But what Billy Beane would like, more than anything, is to take his team through to the championship. That’s where he has set the bar. That’s what he wants.
In storytelling, there is what the main character wants and there is what he needs. The two are not the same. What he wants is clear from the start, but what he needs is something he will discover as the story unfolds. As will we. And once the main character has found out what he needs, he will then have the necessary qualities to go on and claim what he so badly wants.
In the tale of Billy Beane and Oakland Athletics, a true story that was dramatised in the movie Moneyball, Billy Beane has on his side a young, overweight graduate who has studied economics at Yale. And against him is almost everyone else. This includes talent scouts who are stuck in the past and a coach who won’t listen to what he says.
Of course, adversity has its purpose. In his darkest moments, Billy Beane gets to learn what he needs. Self-belief. Confidence. He lost those qualities when he was a promising young baseball player with huge expectations on his shoulders.
I won’t spoil the rest of the story, because the movie is well worth watching.
But this got me thinking about products and brands.
Products give us what we want. That’s easy. That’s clear from the start. We want clean clothes, a drink after work, a tasty supper for our children. We want to look sharp, we want to be wealthy.
But can brands play a valuable role in telling us what we need? What do we need to learn? What do we need to find out about ourselves? How do we need to empower ourselves?
That’s when I realised that many successful brands already use this want/need principle. Whether they do it consciously I don’t know, but let’s make it conscious.
The big take-out
Brands that give us both what we want and what we need are enriching.
Nike: You are one of those crazy people who want to win something. Or maybe you’re just someone who wants to feel physically alive. But what do you need? You need a kick in the ass. You need to get out of bed. You need to get your body moving. Just do it. That’s what you need.
Johnnie Walker: You want to relax after work. You want to show your friends your standing in life. Heck, you want to show yourself your standing in life. But what do you need? You need to feel that you’ve earned your Scotch. You need to feel like a real man, not some cider-sipping flyweight. You need to know the value of grit and determination. When life is difficult – pretty much all the time – you need to remind yourself: Keep Walking.
Allan Gray: You want to be wealthy. You want to be wealthy just like that, overnight. Will it happen? No, it won’t. You need to hang in there. Allan Gray will remind you that you need patience. Discipline. Long-term investing.
We are all Billy Beane. We know what we want. That’s easy. But we are far better off if we learn what we need and develop the qualities that will get us there.
That’s why Moneyball is a good story. It enriches us. It’s a great tale of what we want and what we need.
Products give us what we want. But brands can nourish what we need. Nike, Johnnie Walker and Allan Gray have proved that we find the combination invaluable. Just look at their market share.
Indeed, it seems to me that the brands that enrich society are the brands that enrich their shareholders.
What do you say?
Mark Varder is a brand strategist who has worked with companies of all shapes and sizes, from the Miller Company to SABMiller.