Have you ever seen an improv comedy show? If so, you know that every sketch starts with two things: a setting and roles.
If you don’t know the roles, you can’t do the sketch. You might know the setting is a car, but the role might be a salesperson and buyer, or mechanic and owner, or driver and passenger. Even if you know it’s a driver and passenger, is it a friend driving a friend to the airport? A parent teaching their teenager to drive? Or an Uber driver picking up a customer?
Our roles determine our relationships.
Most companies have narratives that operate inside only a few role relationships. The most common are Seller:Buyer, Employer:Employee, and Distributor:Reseller. They all have one thing in common: they are all commercial relationships based on a transaction.
As you recall from the first chapter, the narrative needs to explain why someone should have a relationship with you beyond the benefits of buying your product. This means that you need to define a brand role that is something other than being a seller.
Nike | Coach:Athlete
Since you are now familiar with the Nike narrative, let’s take a look at the their brand roles. The default role would be manufacturer and customer. Nike makes shoes, apparel and equipment and their customers buy, wear and use them. But Nike’s DNA includes the influence of Bill Bowerman, the former coach of the Oregon track team and the inventor of the original waffle sole. Bill was one part coach and one part inventor, always tinkering with the best gear to help his athletes go faster.
These brand roles continue to this day. Nike is like a coach and outfitter, looking to inspire better performance and provide the best equipment to make it possible. Meanwhile, Nike’s customers are athletes, as reflected in Bill Bowerman’s mantra that, “If you have a body you are an athlete.” So the brand roles go beyond the commercial relationship of Shoemaker:Customer to the roles of Coach:Athlete, which better align to its shared purpose.
Sephora | Teacher:Student
Sephora’s approach to customer service and segmentation can be seen through the lens of brand roles as well. The shared purpose for Sephora is reflected in its current tagline of “Beauty Together.”
Sephora’s salespeople are known as advisors. So you might think the role relationship is Advisor:Customer. But that would still be a commercial relationship and not well aligned to Beauty Together.
Instead, Sephora has found that there are two kinds of role that play out in the relationships between advisors and customers. One is a Teacher:Student relationship in which the customer is looking to the advisor for expertise and instruction.
But there is another kind of relationship as well. In this one, the customer sees themselves as having some degree of expertise already. They want to collaborate and share ideas with the advisor as a peer. The relationship is therefore more symmetrical, what might call Artist:Artist.
Interestingly and importantly, Sephora advisors are trained to look for signals that determine which role to use in the relationship or interaction with a customer. Do they want to be a student and learn from the advisor’s expertise? Or do they want to be appreciated and related to as a peer?
SAP Analytics | Q:Bond
One of my favorite examples of a brand role in a corporate narrative is by SAP Analytics. They identified their shared purpose to be “Better Business Decisions.” The path to purpose was turning data into insight. The brand role emerged from a brainstorming session after we identified that SAP was fundamentally a toolmaker, and in particular tools for mission-critical assignments. One of the team members said, “Like Q for James Bond.”
Now when someone from SAP walks into a meeting, the person on the other side of the desk isn’t just a customer, but an agent in need of the innovative tools that will help them complete their mission-critical assignment.
Exercise: Brand Roles
Think about your shared purpose, DNA and especially your potluck of what you bring to the shared purpose. What are the kinds of role that go with this contribution? If you are someone that brings expertise, are you a scientist, engineer, or teacher? If you are someone that connects people together, are you a broker, matchmaker or party host?
As you identify these roles, be sure to think about the roles of the customer or other stakeholders that go along with it. You are looking to create reciprocal roles. So if you are a Teacher, that means the other role might be a Student. Coach naturally goes with Athlete. Conductor goes with Musician.
If you haven't yet, download this worksheet to help you keep notes on your narrative as you move through this Shift Guidebook.
In the next chapter we will turn our attention from relationships to mindsets. Every innovation requires a new way of thinking, and your narrative needs to help people make the appropriate shifts in thinking.
For more on brand roles, see the article “Build Your Brand as Relationship.”
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