It is not my custom to share dirty laundry with friends, family, let alone readers of my columns but, in this case, it provides good context for the branding topic at hand. So, here it is.

After serving our family well for many years, our washing machine bit the dust, leaving us no choice but to purchase a new one. Beginning our search, both online and off, my wife and I were presented with a host of familiar names, from Maytag to Samsung to Whirlpool and GE. All were recognizable, each with generally good quality associations, yet there wasn’t one brand that stood out as representing something uniquely better or different, a factor which might have helped us quickly choose one versus another. Certain brand names, Apple being a prime example, are mental “shortcuts” for consumers with buying decisions such as ours. With “shortcut” brands, there’s little need to get into compare and contrast mode. The brand name, in and of itself, triggers powerful feature-based associations, as well as strong emotional cues. When a brand name doesn’t help you sort through the sea of similarity, you’re on your own to start comparing features, assessing this bell or that whistle, hoping your eventual choice meets your needs.  

Brands lucky enough to serve as mental shortcuts are becoming fewer and farther between in most categories, especially in home appliances. There are few, if any, that stand out as unique and relevantly different – the Holy Grail for marketers. The fact is that differentiation across a broad spectrum of products and services has been diminishing for years. This makes comparing the minutia of one brand to another, one model to another, availability, size, price, and everything else, a very complicated process. 

In the old mom-and-pop store days, you could count on the owners’ sound and personal advice to help with the decision. With the advent of the big box stores and the rise of online sources for goods, consumers began to turn for help with purchase questions to online reviews. As most of us know, this presents not just a surfeit of information, but a three-ring circus of conflicting data. Which reviews to believe, and which are, excuse me here, fake news? A much more reliable resource is, of course, Consumer Reports. However, delving into Consumer Reports product analysis can, at times, leave with you with more questions than answers. It practically requires an MBA. But, even for the business consultants among us, the detailed Consumer Reports assessments, the full-circle, half-circle, quarter circle designations (known as Harvey Balls), though well-intentioned, can be confusing. 

Discussing this with media entrepreneur, Bob Pittman, former CEO of MTV and a cofounder of iHeartMedia, he told me that what he’d like is a “shopping concierge.” Someone to do the copious research, to sort through the sea of similarity in headphones, washers, dryers, vacuum cleaners – the multitude of products with indistinguishable feature sets – and take over the heavy lifting of the research process. “I don’t want 100 options,” he said. “Just give me the top three. People just want easy.”

People do just want easy. And convenient. And more efficient. And, maybe, just more enjoyable when taking on the activities of daily life. And, guess what? They’re getting it. Over the past few years, asking “how,” not “what,” has become the driving force behind more and more of today’s most successful businesses. Smart thinkers and innovators are transforming everyday experiences, rethinking how we do the stuff we do every day. They’re getting us to change out our old ways, long-standing behaviors, for new and never imagined better ways. And because experience differentiation is harder to replicate than product differentiation, this group is gaining incredible and sustainable market advantage. Yes, Bob, among them is someone who looked at how we make purchase decisions when faced with a vast array of seemingly indistinguishable products and services. 

Wirecutter offers a “shortcut” to comparison shopping

Much as Apple has earned shortcut brand status, so too has Wirecutter, a product review site that literally cuts to the chase relative to its major competitor Consumer Reports. Founded in 2011 by Brian Lam, a technology journalist and former editor of Gawker Media’s technology site Gizmodo, it was sold to The New York Times Company in 2016. The site focuses on writing detailed guides to different categories of consumer products, but recommends just one or two of the best items in the category, thus alleviating both time-consuming analysis and stressful analysis paralysis. It differs from Consumer Reports by its explicit recommendations of top picks, its younger readership (of which I am not, but do appreciate given the early adopter status of the demographic), and its acceptance of vendor-supplied test units. The Wirecutter effect is described as a phenomenon “in which recommendations become so popular they sell out.” 

As stated on the Wirecutter website, its mission is to “recommend what really matters.” After independently testing and reviewing thousands of products, they won’t post a recommendation unless its writers and editors have deemed something the best through rigorous reporting and testing. Clearly stated is the fact that they earn money through subscriptions and various affiliate marketing programs, and get paid commissions on products purchased through links to retailer sites. There is no incentive for them to pick inferior products or to respond to pressure from manufacturers – if a reader returns a product or the recommendation is bad, there is no commission paid. 

While Wirecutter was successful when it started, mostly as a tech-buying service, the acquisition by The New York Times Company is an example of another smart branding strategy. Combining two like-minded brands to better serve consumers has made the Wirecutter even more successful. The addition of The New York Times brand name, which stands for credibility, trustworthiness and thoroughness in fact-checking, offers an even greater degree of confidence to Wirecutter’s many loyal customers, and is a powerful attraction for new customers. The reputation of Wirecutter and its parent company rests on a shared promise for vigorous reporting and editorial integrity.

Those asking “how” will continue to drive marketplace success stories

As I said, today, a growing number of success stories are being written by those who are solving consumer problems not by making something new, or even creating new tech to do something, but by changing the experience of what people do every day. They are taking what we already do – ride, shop, invest, dine, travel, you name it – and transforming it in some relevantly different way. They are seeing and seizing opportunities for competitive market advantage through experience disruption. They’re jumping on opportunities to upend business models and gaining consumer loyalty, as a result.

These “experience disruptors” have become a, now, natural part of our routines. We ride in Ubers and stay with our families in Airbnb residences. We buy our pets their food and supplies through Chewy, spend evenings with Netflix, turn to Warby Parker when in need of new eyeglasses, buy clothing on Stitchfix, get dinner from DoorDash, and set up our Zoom meetings on Calendly and, when life gets to be too much, seek counseling from Betterhelp. And, we look for the gadgets that best fit our needs with Wirecutter. “How,” not “what” is the basis for their significance in our lives. 

The epilog to my story? We purchased a new washing machine, the brand which I will not disclose given my desire to show neutrality and integrity as a brand professional.  But, suffice it to say, I was given guidance on the purchase by Wirecutter, and now the only “how” I still may need a little guidance on is whether to wash in hot or cold. Thankfully there’s Siri and Google for that.