The Best Brand of Fidget Spinner

A plethora of spinners

My middle daughter has been begging to get a fidget spinner, which is a little gizmo that (according to the marketing) cures ADHD, anxiety, and stress. In fact, it’s just a small central bearing around which spins an evenly-distributed weight made of plastic or metal. And while the jury is still out on their healing properties, they are undeniably fun to play with and pretty darn cool.

If you have children, you’re no doubt already familiar with fidget spinners, and you’re probably also aware that there are about a metric gajillion of them for sale on Amazon that look more-or-less the same, all sold by companies no one’s ever heard of.

So how does a dad go about finding the best brand of fidget spinner for his daughter? Well, it’s actually pretty simple.

If you’re like most people, when you read “the best brand of X,” you interpret that to mean “the best X.” And finding “the best” of something requires a discussion about what criteria and specifications make one X better than another X. But “the best X” is not the same thing as “the best brand of X”.

In my case, finding “the best fidget spinner” would have required locating some authority ( who had evaluated all of the options and determined which one was objectively “the best.”

But “the best brand” of fidget spinner is something different. A brand is how you feel about a thing, so finding “the best brand of fidget spinner” meant what I actually had to find was the one I felt best about buying and giving to my daughter.

I could have spent an hour (or more) trying to sort through the options on Amazon, paralyzed by choice and worrying that I’d end up with a piece of junk from a no name company I had to exchange a week later after it broke. But doing that would have made me feel miserable.

So instead, I got in my car and drove five minutes down the road to Geppetto’s, an awesome local toy store chain. And lo and behold — they had a rack of fidget spinners right behind the counter. Also behind the counter was an exceedingly helpful associate who is evidently the world’s leading expert on fidget spinners and helped me choose between the three types of spinners Geppetto’s offers.

I chose a fidget spinner confident that Geppetto’s (a store I trusted) wouldn’t stock a junky product, and that even if the spinner I bought went bad, I could easily return to the store and exchange it with no questions asked.

Sure, I paid a little more for it than I might have on Amazon, but in exchange I feel great about my purchase and my daughter loves it. Warm feels all around.

And that, simply put, makes the spinner I bought the best brand of fidget spinner for me. (Ironically, I don’t even know the name of the company that makes it.)

If you’re a maker, it’s easy to obsess about the thing you’re making and its characteristics, thinking your thing need to be “the best” for anyone to want it. But the truth is none of us ever buys “the best X,” even when we claim we are. We’re always buying “the best brand of X,” and sometimes that’s just right around the corner.

Brand Bit: Auditorium Toy Co.

Auditorium Toy Co.

From time to time, I’m going to highlight some of my favorite brand builders — large and small — to point out some of the delightful things they’re doing.

I especially love people and companies that build brands using details. You know what they say (with apologies to someone who is not Ludwig Mies van der Rohe), “Brand is in the details.”

In this first post, I want to give props Brad Denboer’s late, great Auditorium Toy Co.. I bought one of their Boattail Racers back in the day, and loved everything about it.

The slower you put things together, the slower they fall apart. Auditorium Toy Co.

Auditorium promoted its products as “heirloom toys”, and the motto used in the Boattail Racer’s sales material was “the slower you put things together, the slower they fall apart”. These toys weren’t hunks of plastic crap you’d throw out in next week’s trash. These were toys that would last, and that you’d want to pass down to your children to give to their children.

This ethos was expressed by the toy itself, which was beautifully crafted and manufactured, but the detail that caught my eye was the printed “ownership record” included in the (also beautifully crafted) box. This ownership record included the date of manufacture, the serial number, and a series of “given by/received by” entries you could use to record when and to whom the toy was bestowed. The thirteen pre-printed entries had date entries with century prefixes that began in the 21st century and stretched out to the 24th century.

Such a simple, delightful thing. The date entries could have been left blank and the century prefixes not included. But with that little detail, Auditorium reinforced its “heirloom toy” brand, and made my emotional connection to the brand that much stronger as I imagined my great-great-great-great-great-grandchildren playing with the toy. And they didn’t have to spent a single extra cent to do it.

Boattail Racer Ownership Record

Peter Drucker on brand

In my last post, I concluded with this: “all businesses, including yours, exist solely to build a brand.”

Whenever I write or say this, it provokes a response, and this time was no exception. “How can you say building a brand is the sole purpose of my company?”, the responses go. “What about earning a profit/delivering value to shareholders/creating a great product/acquiring customers/et cetera?”

My answer is that all of those things are important, but they all depend on a strong brand, and so building a brand is more fundamental to the purpose of business.

The difficulty, perhaps, is that we often talk about brand without actually using the word “brand”. Consider this quote from Peter Drucker:

The purpose of business is to create and keep a customer.

Once you understand that your brand is how a person feels about you (I’m going to stop saying “you/your company/your product”), you see that Mr. Drucker is really talking about brand.

How do you create a customer? You establish a emotional connection between you and them that’s positive and prompts them to use your services (and hopefully give you money for the opportunity). And how do you keep a customer? You nurture and grow the emotional connection between you and the customer to make it enduring.

Everything else we do in our businesses either contributes to this (creating a great product that meets your customer’s need builds a positive emotional connection with them), or is derivative to it (with passionate customers and a good business model, you’ll earn a profit and deliver value to your shareholders).

By definition, to create and keep a customer, you must create and grow a brand. Ergo, the purpose of business is to create and grow a brand. Q.E.D.

Thinking bigger than product

It’s a cautionary tale that’s so familiar it spawned an archetype: the brilliant engineer who invents game-changing technology that never succeeds in the marketplace because (as every good product manager knows) a technology is not enough. Technology is but one thing needed to build something bigger — a product. The archetypical engineer has a blind spot that hides from her this larger truth. Enter product managers, gifted with insight into the holy product, who swoop in to save the day. (Having been a product manager myself, I can poke fun.)

Now, while there is some truth to this story, fortunately the understanding that a technology is but one part of a successful product has become widespread (including, it must be said, by lots of those “stereotypical” engineers). But ironically, there’s yet another blind spot that affects those most convinced they see the full picture. In this new blind spot looms something bigger than product. What looms there is brand.

Just as the stereotypical engineer focuses too much on technology and fails to appreciate product, the stereotypical product manager focuses too much on product and fails to appreciate brand. Yes, technology is not enough and is but one thing needed to build a product. But just as true is that a product is not enough. Product is but one thing needed to build something bigger — a brand.

Successful teams and companies understand this and orient all of their activities towards creating this greater asset. They understand this fundamental truth: all businesses, including yours, exist solely to build a brand.

Starting simply

I’m a big fan of simplicity in design. Given the human propensity to complicate and do more, simplicity remains vastly underrated despite its obvious appeal and value. One of my favorite articulations of this in the context of product design comes from Brian Christensen: “Most people need less done well, not more done poorly.”

But recently I’ve been thinking a lot about simplicity in the context of brand design. Specifically, I’m pondering John Gall’s famous comment on systems design, sometimes called Gall’s Law, which states:

A complex system that works is invariably found to have evolved from a simple system that worked. A complex system designed from scratch never works and cannot be patched up to make it work. You have to start over with a working simple system.

I’ve come to believe a similar “law” is at play with creating great brands. I’d state it like this: A strong and complex brand that works is invariably found to have evolved from a strong and simple brand that worked.

By “simple brand” I don’t mean something akin to Al Ries’ “Law of the Word” where FedEx = Overnight delivery, Kleenex = tissue, etc. I think that’s overly simplistic, and is one of the rigid ways of thinking that lead people astray from a real understanding of brand.

Powerful brands are rich and complex things, and the best of them are organic and alive. But any rich and complex emotional connection must start with, and be grounded in, a simple emotional connection. That’s what I mean by a “simple brand”.

Think of the relationships in your life. If you’re married, think of how you came to love your husband or wife. That relationship didn’t appear fully formed with all the richness and complexity that comes with years of shared experiences. Rather, it started with something simple. Maybe you noticed her hands, or her eyes, or the way she laughed. And from that initial connection, a richer relationship developed.

I’ve taken away two key insights from my pondering:

  • First, take care to not overdefine your brand at the start. Don’t limit yourself to one word, but neither indulge the temptation to have 12 “core values”. Focus on your core, and articulate that in a simple way others can connect to.
  • But second, don’t make the mistake of limiting yourself to that initial brand definition. Allow your brand to grow and develop as your customers develop a more rich and complex connection to it.

Grounding your brand in a simple core, but allowing your brand to change and grow, is the path to creating something powerful and enduring.

Seeing the invisible

It’s one thing to understand that a brand is how people feel about a thing, but it’s another thing to fully grasp the implications of that and fit it into one’s worldview. One thread I’ve been pulling on for a long time is to find the perfect metaphor for brand. It’s been a fun but frustrating mental exercise.

To fully capture the concept of brand, we must represent not just the thing, but how people feel about it. It’s the reaction to the action, the context to the text, the ground to the figure. Yet those comparisons are imperfect, since a brand exists in some sense independently of its stimulus.

I’ve cycled through a lot of metaphors — echolocation, chemical reactions, the electromagnetic spectrum, holograms, dark matter — and it’s been fun to think about, but I haven’t nailed it yet. I’ll keep trying.

But suffice it to say this: to fully understand brand, you need to see not just what’s there, but the effect it has on the world around it. And when that clicks, you’ll look at everything a bit differently. You’ll see there’s McDonald’s, and there’s how you feel about McDonald’s; there’s the trusty Honda you drive to work each day, and there’s how you feel about your Honda; there’s your family, and there’s how you feel about your family.

Once you have the ability to see the world that way, you have the power to influence it. And that’s when the fun begins.

The Matrix

A definition of brand

I’ll confess to a deep cynical streak about certain things. One of those things is business writing, especially writing about marketing and brand. Most of this “content” seems designed by its “contributors” to do nothing more than create “engagement” for the web behemoths publishing it to attract eyeballs to pay the bills. What’s worse, this word spew often serves to confuse more than illuminate.

A prime example of this is kind of writing is writing about brand. With rare exceptions like Marty Neumeier’s books, most brand writing consists of some a combination of anecdotes about ranchers, cattle, Nike sneakers, and Tide laundry detergent, with some version of the phrase “your brand is what your customers say it is” thrown in for good measure. It’s not that this writing is wrong, per se, just that it ends up obfuscating what I believe is actually a simple (even primal) concept.

Here’s how I define brand: a brand is how a person feels about a thing. Defined this way, a few things become clear.

  • First, we all instinctively understand brand, because all of us (with the possible exception of one Dr. Sacks’ patients) feel about things.
  • Second, almost everything has a brand. Barack Obama has a brand; golden retrievers have a brand; the park bench has a brand; your grandmother has a brand; 7th grade has a brand; because you feel something about all of those things (although in the case of some things like the park bench, it may amount to little or nothing).
  • Third, every thing has as many brands as there are people to feel something about it. My brand for golden retrievers is not exactly the same as your brand (although in all likelihood there’s a lot of similarity between our two golden retriever brands, unless you’re some kind of monster).

Now, saying that brand is a simple concept and that we all understand it instinctively, is not to say that we all are conscious of it and its effects on the world around us. But that can be gained with a change your perspective and the courage to take the red pill.

Dark matter

The Universe is one of those things that begs the use of the phrase “mind blown” without irony or hyperbole. 91 billion light-years in diameter (that we can observe, the totality is likely much larger), 13.8 billion years old (give or take), filled with perhaps as many as 10 trillion galaxies, each with 100 billion or so stars. (That’s 100 octillion stars in total, but who’s counting?)

The Universe is so vast and filled with stuff that we have a hard time looking at nothing. If we point our most powerful telescopes at the parts of the sky that seem absolutely empty, after enough time we find that, in fact, that part of the sky isn’t empty at all, but is as filled with galaxies as the parts that shine brightly with stars.

But of all the unfathomable facts about the Universe, perhaps this is the most mind blowing (see?) of all: by our best estimates, everything we can see and observe — all the matter — accounts for only 15% of the total. The other 85% is something that neither emits nor absorbs light or any other electromagnetic radiation and we can’t directly detect in any way. The vast majority of the matter in the Universe is not matter at all, it’s dark matter.

Dark matter makes up the vast majority of our Universe, and yet we can’t see it at all; we can only infer its existence from its effect on what we can see. And that, dear reader wondering why you’re reading about the Universe on a site dedicated to brand strategy, brings us to brand.

There is so much sturm and drang in the business and tech worlds, and all of it focused on what we can see and directly observe. Very little attention is paid to that which we can’t see, but which has a profound (even dominant) influence on everything around us. Product, sales, customer support, growth hacking, et al — these are the matter of the business world. But brand…brand is the dark matter. More on this in the days to come.

In the Beginning, there was Brand

I didn’t start out as a “brand guy”. I was an engineer, and not even one of the software persuasion. I was a mechanical engineer, steeped in Newtons and torques and shear strengths. Yet while those things filled my head, my heart found purchase in design methodology. How do you meet a person, understand their problem, and conceptualize and ultimately build something that provides them a solution? I made this question my course of study, and it served me well not only in physical product design, but later as I moved on to software products and — ultimately — brands.

“Wait”, you say. “I can follow your step from physical to software products, but…brands?” Indeed. Because while designing physical products, I learned the value of empathy — the ability to put one’s self into the shoes of another, to feel their emotions, and through it gain an understanding of their problem and how it might be solved. And as I would come to discover, empathy is at the core of creating powerful brands.

This might seem an odd statement to you if your understanding of brand is garnered from articles with breathless titles like “How Your Brand Can Use Instagram To Supercharge Sales Growth”. That endless parade of words makes a brand sound like something fleeting and insecure that must ever reinvent itself to take advantage of the newest thing. But that understanding is wrong. Because a brand is not something fleeting and new. Created well, even a “new” brand is grounded in something powerful and old. Very, very old.

I define “brand” as simply this: how a person feels about a thing. And as emotions are as old as humankind, to create brands is to work with a stuff primal to our being. To create a good brand, one must understand the emotional state of (i.e., one must empathize with) those who experience it.

Whether one seeks empathy to create great products or create great brands, the task is the same, only the level of abstraction of the output changes. In fact, I say we are all brand builders. Whether engineers, or product managers, or copywriters, or graphic designers, or salespeople, or customer support…in the end, we shape the emotional state of those who experience what we make.

When considered in this way, you realize this is what humans have done with one another from time immemorial, and it’s what we each have done since our earliest days. In the beginning, there was brand, and we were brand builders. We remain brand builders still, even if most of us don’t realize it yet.