Are You Selling the What or the Why?

The difference between brands is so rarely related to the products they peddle. Learn to harness the experience instead.

February 19, 2014

Recently, I sat in a meeting — no, not the kind you fall asleep in, but one that actually piqued my interest. It was a talk organized by real estate marketing firm 1000watt that spoke to the principle of branding, which is near and dear to my heart.

Marc Davison, co-founder of 1000watt, had a simple question: Do you sell the “what” or the “why” first?

Let me rephrase for those left-brained people out there: Is it about the thing that’s being sold or the ideals of the people who are selling it?

The answer is YES.

The most successful companies have proven time and again that the experience of buying outweighs the rhetoric of empty promises. Everyone sells things, but the company that stands behind those things makes all the difference.

For instance, if you want to buy a toy, where would you go if distance wasn't an issue? Toys ‘R’ Us or FAO Schwarz?

Not sure? Come on. Close your eyes. Tell me: What is the difference between the two? One delivers a kind of wonderment, and the other, well, at least for me, creates a panic attack. FAO Schwarz sells a place where dreams come true. Toys ‘R’ Us is the Walmart of toy stores. Now, there is nothing wrong with Walmart if you are looking to save, but if you want to pay a premium for a great experience, it's not exactly the first place to look.

What about Zappos? They don't sell shoes. Really! They sell happiness. Shoes are just a part of the equation.

Take Virgin Atlantic: Not exactly Delta, is it? Virgin is selling an oasis in what many people consider to be hell itself: the flying experience. I once paid $150 just to go into Virgin’s club before a flight. I swear it was the best airport experience I have ever had.

The Apple Store, my favorite place in the entire world, is the best example of all. Within the clean, white walls demonstrating the acme of spatial winsome, you can find every grown-up toy one might require to fill the consumerist's soul. Healthy? Maybe not. (At least my wife and wallet don't think so.) But damn, does it feel good to be there.

See, all around us are examples of companies who exude the “why” before they provide the “what.” They simply get it, and all the while, their competitors don't understand.

So, I will make this radical statement: We, as real estate practitioners, don't sell houses. We sell the experience of dreams. Now, how each of us delivers those dreams to our clients is vastly different, but I believe to my core that this is true.

However, the sad fact is that as long as we believe we are widget peddlers, shelling out houses in vast numbers from one person to the next, we will never grow when our industry desperately needs us to do so.

So, as you mull over the somewhat controversial position I have taken, think of things this way: Do you Walmart or Apple?

In that answer is our future.

Darrin Friedman is the strategic brand specialist for Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices The Preferred Realty in Pittsburgh.