by Deb Gabor

What’s the one thing that should always be at the center of your brand?

It isn’t design, color schemes, or masterful copywriting.

It’s your customer.

Some business owners have a hard time understanding this, but your brand isn’t about you. Your brand exists to bolster your customer’s self-image, lead them to achieve their goals, and help them become the kind of person they want to be.

To accomplish this requires you to think carefully about who your customer is. You need to understand them better than they understand themselves.

First, ignore traditional marketing advice
Traditional marketing has always taught us to think about segmenting and dividing markets.

When you’re bringing a new product to market, the traditional textbook methodology is to think about who are all the potential people who could possibly buy this product, and then segment based on the potential use cases, the possible purchase channels, and their reasons for buying and not buying the product.

In other words, traditional marketing methods tell us to identify as many potential audiences as we can and then divide them further based upon demographics or shopping behaviors or desires and attitudes.

Using that old way of thinking often means taking your brand message and dividing it rather than multiplying it. Segment marketing suggests that you’re going to create a different brand experience for each of those different audiences. When you start dividing and segmenting your market, you start creating more and more marketing messages that are dissimilar from each other. If not managed, that practice can dilute your brand’s impact.

I’m not against segment marketing. In fact, part of my company does quantitative psychographic research with the goal of creating and identifying market segments and then coming up with marketing strategies and tactics for companies to go after those segments.

But when you create your brand, you need to look to what’s similar among all of those segments to create a singular brand for a singular customer archetype. That customer archetype is called the ideal customer, and it’s an in-depth profile of the customer who is most highly predictive of a brand’s success.

Who is your ideal customer?
The ideal customer archetype is something that serves as a guiding principle for everything you do in branding and gives you a singular, highly identifiable customer persona toward which to point your brand’s story.

The ideal customer archetype is a fleshed out, detailed, hypothetical profile of your absolute ideal customer.

This doesn’t need to encompass anyone who might engage with your brand. I like to think of the ideal customer archetype as the profile of that single customer who will spend the most money with you over the longest time because he or she has so strongly bought-in to your brand experience.

Create your ideal customer profile
This is where your creative skills come into play. After you’ve spoken to enough customers and people in your social networks who use the product, it’s time to write down a description of your ideal customer.

Close your eyes and conjure up a vivid image of who the perfect person is to buy your brand. Who are they? How old are they? Are they male or female? Married or single? What is their income?

Conjure up an image of who that person is, and write down everything you can think of.

Once you’ve written down everything you can think of, dig deeper.

The best trick I’ve found is to try to imagine his or her lifestyle. For instance, for a hypothetical online grocer in the Northeast, the ideal customer might be a thirty-five-year-old mom with two school-age kids at home.

That’s great as far as demographics go, but we can dig deeper by picturing the rest of her life. She works thirty hours a week outside of the home. She lives in the New York suburbs. She shops for groceries once a week in a big shopping trip, and then she does fill-in shopping every other day. She’s a technology user — she has a smartphone and a laptop and a tablet. She wears high-end casual clothes with designer labels when she shops. She carries a gigantic pocketbook. She keeps a yoga mat in her expensive European SUV, and she does not like minivans. Her total household income is around $200,000.

Now dial in your vision even further. Imagine her getting out of her SUV wearing one of her pairs of high-end designer jeans that cost around $200. She’s wearing a puffy down vest from North Face because that’s what all the other moms are wearing when they pick up their kids from private school.

Continue to go through the process of envisioning who this person is and what their life looks like. Write it all down. Even draw a picture of her if you have to.

Identify the Ideal Customer’s Needs
Once you’ve created this ideal customer profile, the next step is to think about that person’s needs.

This is the hardest part of the ideal customer archetype process. This is the part where you have to really dig in.

Let’s go back to our suburban, working mom with two kids. From that detailed description, I can probably deduce some of her needs. She needs to feel like she is the best possible parent she can be. She also needs to look like the best parent in comparison to other moms at her kids’ school. Since she works outside the home, she likely feels the strain of balancing her job and spending time with her kids at this critical age. So she has needs for activities and services and products that give her as much time as possible to spend with her kids in the way that she wants to that also makes her feel like she is fulfilling her potential as their mom.

We also know that she values quality in the products that she buys because she doesn’t have time to drive around town making returns. In thinking about food, for instance, she probably wants to have the healthiest, most nutritious meals she can get for her children without the need to do a lot of shopping or preparation. She certainly doesn’t have time to shop at multiple grocery stores, and sometimes she doesn’t have the time to cook everything that comes to the table for a family meal. However, she still wants to feel like she’s the provider of tonight’s dinner and that the meal meets her very high standards.

Understanding your ideal customer in depth enables you to understand what that person needs most from you and your brand. By getting inside the head of your ideal customer, you’re able to extract from it the story that the customer wants to tell themselves and the world about who they are.

Eventually you’ll get a clear image of who your ideal customer is and, ultimately, whom your brand is for.

The ideal customer profile exercise
This is great, but how do you actually do it? How do you figure out who your ideal customer is?

The ideal customer archetype exercise is ideally done in a group brainstorming session with the staff in your company who are most involved in customer-facing roles.

Don’t just invite the top executives! Often it’s your salespeople, customer service reps, returns processors, and delivery drivers who are closest to the customers. They actually know more about your customers than your marketing team ever could.

What I’d recommend is bringing a group together with a big roll of butcher paper, and dividing up into smaller groups to answer the following questions:

  • Who is our ideal customer?
  • What does their average day look like?
  • What are the needs they’re looking to fulfill?

This seems easy enough, but companies often struggle with these branding exercises because the conclusions are sometimes difficult to swallow. It’s hard to leave behind the myths and beliefs that are part of the company history.

But, ultimately, this ideal customer process is extremely galvanizing for companies.

I’ll give you an example. One of the companies that I worked with for a long time was iVillage.com. Back in its heyday, iVillage was probably the largest online destination for women. At the time I started working with the company, it had just become part of NBC Universal. With a mid-2000s onslaught of “mom media,” iVillage struggled to remain relevant and knew it had to reinvent itself in order to compete. Additionally, the proliferation of highly focused digital media sites in passion verticals, such as food, entertainment, parenting, fashion, and beauty, was stealing their readers.

By late 2011, iVillage was struggling to figure out how to both narrow its focus and grow traffic. As part of a branding engagement, I had them do the ideal customer exercise.

For iVillage’s ideal customer exercise, we did exactly the process described above. My team brought out a big roll of butcher paper and cut it into six-foot lengths. We divided up the staff of about one hundred employees into smaller groups. We gave each group markers, art supplies, magazines, photographs, glue, and scissors. Then I gave them the assignment of creating an image of iVillage’s ideal customer, using all that stuff.

One group actually had one of their team members lay down on the butcher paper, and they traced her body with magic marker. They gave her big eyes and big ears because they wanted to communicate, “Our ideal customer is somebody who has a curiosity about the world around her and is seeking information from other people.”

Another group drew their ideal customer as a woman with a gigantic pocketbook filled with items from different categories, such as parenting, beauty, fashion, and health. Their idea was, “Our ideal customer is somebody who is super engaged and productive in her world and needs inspiration, information, and connections in all of these different areas of her life.”

Another group drew this Picassoesque Cubist version of a woman with five arms and six legs and ten eyes. This was their version of a woman who is doing a lot of things at once.

Each team presented their ideal customer diagrams to the rest of the teams. Then I challenged them as a larger group to combine those traits to come up with a singular ideal customer profile. That group of one hundred people used all of those inputs to create the North Star version of their ideal customer.

Although it was difficult for them to give up some of their company’s tribal knowledge and assumptions around who their audience should be, it was extremely galvanizing for them to narrow their focus to align on a singular profile.

What’s next?
The ideal customer profile is just one exercise I recommend for companies to align their focus on exactly who their customer is and what deep needs they are fulfilling.

For all the tips, tricks and exercises we use with our Sol Marketing clients, as well as a deeper understanding of how to think about your customers’ needs, check out my book, Branding is Sex.