What jumps immediately to mind when you think of brand? And how do you describe “innovation” and its role in your business?
If you start talking about brand by citing ad campaigns, referencing tracking studies, or brandishing survey results, it’s probably time for a reset. The same applies if you gauge innovation by the size of your company’s patent portfolio, number of new launches, or percentage spend on R&D.
But if you frame your responses in terms of the jobs that customers “hire” your products or services to perform, and you easily connect those responses to what your developers and designers do, and you can articulate how these actions bring new meaning to the lives of customers, then you’re on to something very important.
It’s our contention that now, more than ever, significant value can be generated by integrating brand and innovation disciplines. We don’t mean just the occasional collaboration session; rather, we mean a linkage that is consistent and a regular element of the operating model, geared to customer priorities and motivations. That linkage is far from typical today. Brands are usually managed somewhere within marketing or communications, while innovation is in its own functional silo, part of R&D, or embedded within individual business units.
The two disciplines are tightly interdependent. We’re not the first to say so. In his writings on the purpose of business, celebrated management thinker Peter Drucker put it this way: “Because [its] purpose is to create a customer, any business enterprise has two—and only these two—basic functions: marketing and innovation. They are the entrepreneurial functions.” .
“Go-to Brands” that get it
Some businesses seem to understand that concept intuitively—and profit from it. Consider American Girl Doll, the company behind the highly popular, yet premium-priced, dolls. The features of the dolls—their clothing, hair, accessories, look—are not the point. American Girl Doll is rooted in the desire that mothers and grandmothers feel to share experiences and create lasting memories with their daughters and granddaughters and the universal childhood yearning to unleash the imagination, make friends, and build stories. As founder Pleasant Roland said, “It was always about the stories, not the stuff.” 
Seeking to energize share of dinner spend among its shoppers, ShopRite became immersed in customers’ individual circumstances and discovered that they were less concerned with how they prep meals or shop and more focused on the rewards of more time spent together, as a family, around the table. Designing for prioritized dimensions of experience, the grocery retailer launched an innovative and reimagined store-within-a-store concept, where customers can encounter fresh foods ready to be heated, ready-to-serve meals, and ingredients curated for easy prep and serve.
And at Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU)—hailed as one of the most innovative US colleges—policies, structures, and processes were radically reworked to support online students, a cohort previously overlooked by SNHU and whose needs were very different; most were adults returning to education while trying to juggle jobs and families. Among the rejigged processes that SNHU discovered: Its online learners prized everything from near-real-time responses about financial aid to fast decisions about previous college credits to ongoing support from personal advisors, who would reach out in times of need rather than dock points for a late assignment.
American Girl Doll, ShopRite, and SNHU illustrate the power of integrating innovation and brand. Specifically, these companies do two things that most brands do not: (1) they enable desired progress, and (2) they create connection. They perform high-priority “Jobs to be Done” in the lives of their customers and, in doing so, command a greater share of wallet, grow faster, have higher consideration for new services, and are more likely to be recommended by their customers. Innovation actions, rooted in jobs to be done, fuel Go-to Brands.
Go-to Brands are setting the bar by continuously thinking about the systematic linkages between brand and innovation. And the payoffs are eye-opening. We have researched and measured the differences between Go-to Brands and their non-Go-to Brand counterparts and found that the former generates, on average, five times the annual revenue growth of their transactional peers. Our research during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic also showed that Go-to Brands held up 50% better than their peers through the economic downturn.
Every leadership team should want its brand to become a Go-to Brand.
What it means to be a Go-to Brand
Let’s look more closely at what it means to be a Go-to Brand—and what it entails for business leaders. Put simply, a Go-to Brand earns its users’ love and is valued for the progress it enables in their lives. People promote the brand on their clothes, through their social personas, and sometimes even with their tattoos. These exceptional brands engender extraordinary customer loyalty and the willingness to pay premium prices, because Go-to Brands create value and meaning for their customers in ways that their peers do not. (See Figure 1.)
Figure 1: Distinguishing Go-to Brands from the rest
To support the Go-to Brand idea, let’s revisit our definitions of “brand” and “innovation.“ Brand is best expressed as the shared meaning that is created between a company and its customer. Innovation is the process of birthing new offerings that meaningfully improve customers’ lives.  By integrating brand and innovation, organizations are able to better focus creating both an emotional connection and enabling new progress in the lives of its customers. Connection without progress risks disruption, and progress without connection risks defection. Combining both is what sets Go-to Brands apart—making consumers feel differently, think differently, behave differently.
A quick example: if Southwest Airlines—a Go-to Brand—loses a passenger’s luggage, she forgives them. When the company quickly locates and delivers the bag to her hotel, she posts a photo of the delivery person on Instagram, exalting the airline. Yet, if she flies on United Airlines and her suitcase is damaged in transit, her video and the accompanying diatribe go viral—even though the data shows that Southwest cancels flights and loses bags about as often as United does!
Connection without progress risks disruption, and progress without connection risks defection. Combining both is what sets Go-to Brands apart
Go-to Brands signal that they are not focused only on a customer’s purchasing patterns, or his account balance, or his lifetime economic value. For instance, many Go-to-Brands also strengthen social ties, linking customers to something bigger than themselves. When Spotify not only helps people discover and enjoy new music but also connects them to their friends and allows them to share music that they love, the brand creates experiences whose value goes beyond the tracks on the playlist. Outdoor apparel brand Patagonia also excels at this by aligning its actions with shoppers’ concerns about the environment. How many companies run ad campaigns encouraging consumers not to buy their products? The initiative asking customers to “buy less” wasn’t an inspired piece of marketing but rather a sincere response to the planetary crisis, signaling a mutual responsibility between company and customer to extend the full lifecycle of their stuff.
Furthermore, in the interest of resource conservation, customers can always return any product for a repair or, in the event that’s impossible, receive a credit for a replacement. The message: Products should last and not be replaced with each passing season or trend.
Our research was focused on this question: What causes a brand to achieve “go-to” status in our lives?  Sampling more than 50,000 consumers’ personal perspectives on 500-plus brands, we built a statistical model that is easy to understand, predictive of financial outcomes, and directive in that it shows leaders where they need to improve their businesses to be more meaningful to customers and to become more successful financially.
The Jobs to be Done component of every Go-to Brand
One of keys to the enduring effectiveness of Go-to Brands is an innovation best practice known as Jobs to be Done. The Jobs to be Done construct—a management mindset, if you will—is how Go-to Brands enable progress by helping people do things that they couldn’t do before. Quite often, Go-to Brands surprise consumers. Go-to Brands seem to sense the subconscious desires and unspoken frustrations of their customers.
American Girl Doll speaks to its customers’ unconscious desires by creating thought-provoking stories about each doll’s character, which prompts curiosity and cultural awareness—aspects cherished by parents, who are target customers. Tesla addresses unspoken frustrations when remotely upgrading the software in its cars, meaning that owners don’t need to bring the car to the dealer in order to have the work done. T-Mobile staffs its customer-service hotlines with actual people; no frustrating chat-bots there. And Amazon has impressed shoppers by offering zero shipping costs for its subscription Prime service—and continually adding new Prime offerings, such as free reads on e-books, magazines, and more. All of these Go-to Brands are responding to jobs to be done.
A word of explanation about the “Jobs to be Done” term: As people move through their daily personal and professional lives, they find themselves in situations where they need help. The situations range from the frequent “I want the right music to accompany my workout,” to the occasional “I have a business meeting in Baltimore,” to the infrequent “I think it’s time for a new car.”
To help meet those needs, people pull a product or service into their lives. In effect, they “hire” it. And if it performs well, they likely will “hire” it again and again. But if it fails to deal with the job to be done, they will “fire” it and look elsewhere. Brands that successfully perform jobs that were historically difficult or impossible, in fact, enable progress in the lives of their customers. 
From the brand’s perspective, each situation signals an opportunity to innovate—to find new ways to handle a job to be done. The Jobs to be Done framework provides tools for building a Go-to Brand, offering an approach to innovation that is predictive not merely descriptive.
Revisiting the matrix shown above in Figure 1, it’s fairly easy to envision that brands can and do move; for example, a brand that is a “comfortable” and regular choice for shoppers may be at risk of slumping to “transactional” status and becoming closer to being commoditized. The matrix can provide managers with insight on what’s needed to become a Go-to Brand: Are you at risk of losing connection? Do you fall down on offering progress beyond what others provide? Having that insight helps managers focus on the unfulfilled dimensions of the desired experience—the parts of a job that are inadequately performed.
Further to that point, leaders who understand the brand-innovation linkage realize that they can dramatically expand their portfolio of innovation options. SNHU, ShopRite, American Girl Doll, Tesla have all excelled by activating innovation in areas that others neglected. Rather than following the competiton, these Go-to Brands changed the basis on which their competition rested: These brands rewrote the rules of the game. And, by thinking of brand and innovation as inextricably interwined in the fabric of customer experieice, they reached far beyond the usual levers of incremental product features, marginal performance improvements, and pricing manipulations.
Every brand should want to become a Go-to Brand
As noted earlier: Every brand should want to become a Go-to Brand, but not every brand understands what it takes to be a Go-to Brand.
By itself, the Go-to Brands construct gives business leaders the language to communicate accurately and efficiently about brand-related decisions. Those decisions then become actions when the Jobs to be Done framework is layered in. The Go-to Brand construct provides leaders with the tools to convert insight into performance, enabling them to organize innovation activity in order to build brands in ways that bring new meaning to customers’ lives and unlock new value for brands and their customers alike.
And that has to be music to the ears of shareholders everywhere.