I love the power of questions. I like to ask questions that make people think, and I love to be asked questions that make other people think. So I thought I would have some fun (well, for me it is fun… your mileage may vary) for the end of that year and try to think of the questions that would get CEOs and teams in a great headset for the new year.

  1. What intangible value does your company provide your core customer that you might not be articulating well? (And please don’t answer “great customer service.”) I am a huge fan of Marty Neumeier’s 25 Brand Intangibles that Add Value as a starting point to help answer this question concretely. Take a look at the list. See any that resonate? Now look at your materials. Think about how you deliver your products or service. Does your most powerful value shine through? Do your customers appreciate something about you that your prospects don’t?
  2. Do you have any disconnects in your internal culture and your external brand? For example, if your external brand touts amazing customer service or innovation, but you hire and reward people based on sales volume, turnaround time, or efficiency, you might get short-term gain, but be headed for a long-term issue. Is there is an opportunity to start a new internal celebration, practice, or benefit in 2020 that is more closely aligned with your external brand promise? It can be a great way to make sure that your brand is internalized and institutionalized more fully. With small teams, disconnects may not feel like a big deal, but in the long-run, it makes the brand much less scalable (and potentially untenable).
  3. How can you make your brand more experiential? I recently spoke to someone marveling over her experience buying Native deodorant online. She was recounting the funny emails she got updating her on her deodorant’s journey from order to manufacture to shipping. It was clear from her enthusiasm about the brand that by providing a quality product and making this customer’s experience more personalized and fun, Native has won a customer for life. (And from their tagline – Invest in Yourself – I would say that they are also able to demand a price premium because of that brand loyalty.) So if a deodorant manufacturer can do it, I know you can. How can you enhance your customer’s experience in a way that is meaningful to them and true to your brand? Challenge your team to think of a new way to delight your customers and spur word-of-mouth.
  4. Who is your primary customer? Most companies don’t like to truly answer this question, because it means having to make hard choices. That said, the easiest way to outperform your competition is to have one primary customer on whose needs your entire company is truly focused. Many companies will create avatars of their ideal customer so that their internal team can focus on them. Victoria’s Secret employees talk about “Victoria” as a real person. One of our clients regularly refers to their primary customer, a security specialist, as “Brad.” This personification of a demographic allows their team to keep this person front and center when they make any decision about resource allocation.
  5. What guardrails have you placed around your brand? Sometimes deciding what we are not is as important as deciding what you are, and can help your team avoid making decisions that would harm your brand. By telling them what not to do, instead of telling them what to do, you also leave more room for creativity and innovation, and more ability to effectively delegate your company’s brand to others. It can also help you know when to say no to opportunity. For example, Starbucks founder Howard Schultz wished that the company had said no to opening Starbucks locations in dreary strip malls, and paid more attention to curating a high-end experience during their boom around 2007. I also have heard the founder of S’well, Sarah Kauss, talk about how she turned down every opportunity for retail exclusives early on so she didn’t dilute the brand with cheap knock-offs before it was well-established. For high-growth brands, it is often more important to know when to say no than to always say yes.

These are just five of the big questions I’ve been talking to clients about. I hope at least one of them will give you some new energy or new perspective going into the new year.