Leading Brands Remove Life’s Frictions

Macro friction is at the category level. Micro friction is at the brand level. As in economics, friction can be categorized into macro and micro. Macro friction sits at the category level. It’s the gap between the way things are and the way they should be in an entire industry. Removing it helps people have better vacations, gain better control of their finances or become better musicians. It helps people become a better version of themselves. Removing macro friction creates an emotional connection to a brand.

By contrast, micro friction sits at the brand level. It’s not the big-headline, empowering stuff. It’s the difference between the way things are and the way things should be in how brands sell and support products. It’s anything that makes it hard to make the right purchase decision or get the most value out of products that are already purchased. Removing micro friction creates a rational connection to a brand.

To understand the difference between macro and micro, let’s look at Uber, since it’s a brand we all use and understand. The macro friction is that millions of people need a more convenient tool for short-range travel. So they created a safe, easy, reliable way for people to get a ride. Both drivers and riders simply need to use a straightforward mobile app. That’s what removes macro friction. They elevated an entire category.

Yet, it’s the micro friction aspects of the experience that are equally powerful. It only requires one click to provide your home address or share your music playlist with the driver. You never need to take out your wallet to pay, and you don’t need to calculate the tip. What I find truly fascinating is that both drivers and riders are extremely nice to each other because they are policed by the five-star ratings.

It’s the granular micro friction–fighting tactics that make it such an appealing experience. The user base for Uber is so passionate that the only advertisements you see for the brand are to recruit drivers to keep up with the consumer demand. That’s the power of removing both macro and micro friction.

Let’s Dive Deeper Into Macro Friction

Patagonia removes it by fighting the ironic aspect of the category, which is that manufacturing products to enjoy in the great outdoors actually harms the great outdoors. Take, for example, those amazing board shorts that dry within minutes of getting out of the ocean. Mother Nature didn’t make those shorts. When Patagonia makes those, it creates by-products, some of which are harmful to the environment.

So how does Patagonia manage this friction? Not by refusing to make board shorts, but by empowering intelligent choice. It created a tool called the Footprint Chronicles that shows customers the entire supply chain for its products so that customers can find out how Patagonia products impact the environment and what Patagonia is doing to improve. This empowers customers to decide if they want to buy or not, without the hype or obfuscation of marketing messages.

This isn’t simply a campaign. It’s part of a platform. At the moment that I sit writing this, the first panel of their current website’s home page isn’t gear or apparel. It’s a book called Patagonia Tools for Grassroots Activists: Best Practices for Success in the Environmental Movement. In their retail stores, they have bookshelves dedicated to similar content. They also produce documentary films that they promote through every possible channel they own and screen in their stores.

They use every touchpoint between the brand and the audience to hammer home a single point: We need a healthier environment. Patagonia is clearly passionate about the great outdoors. That’s core to their culture. But it’s also good business, because removing macro friction creates an army of evangelists that carry the brand forward much more effectively than paid advertising.

When I go fly fishing, it’s shockingly consistent how heavily the guides are covered in Patagonia labels. By definition, those guides are the most influential people on the river. And you’re damn right that people are influenced to purchase what the guides wear. Interestingly enough, as Patagonia became a massive success, other brands misinterpreted the results and tried to be green, too. That’s not the point. People don’t expect that, and they don’t reward it. They don’t wake up in the morning expecting brands to hug the trees and save the manatees. Coke is out saving polar bears, but no one actually thinks Coke really cares.

Rather, this is a relationship story. Brands speaking to the audience in a way that’s never been done before. Enriching people’s lives in a relatively small but authentic way. Patagonia’s key competitor, The North Face, demonstrates this point brilliantly. It competes in the same exact category, but it tackles a completely different source of macro friction. The North Face realized that to fully enjoy the outdoors requires intense training.

They have Mountain Athletics, which is a series of training events led by experts that take place rain or shine. They have a speaker series where the audience gets inspired by tales from some of the world’s great adventurers, and they fund nonprofits to enable the next generation of outdoor explorers. Some of North Face’s content and tools have changed over time. I was enamored with a series of North Face training videos that feature the world’s best athletes in sports such as rock climbing and skiing. Apparently, they didn’t catch on as the brand hoped, so the videos are less prominent. But that’s the beauty of an empowering platform rather than a campaign. The core philosophy lives on in perpetuity while the individual activations morph and optimize.

The key to removing macro friction is that it elevates the entire category, regardless of whether the people using the content are customers of the brand that created it. Patagonia’s environmental platform helps anyone interested in the health of the planet. The North Face’s performance platform helps anyone interested in outdoor fitness.

It certainly appears unfocused to invest in content that could be used by a competitor’s customers, but the point is to prove at an instinctual level that the brand truly cares about its positioning and its customers. You can find macro friction in any category. It’s why products and services are developed in the first place: to solve problems and fill a need. But consumers want more than products now. They want experiences. Not arbitrary experiences. Not simply fun or entertaining experiences. They want experiences that move their lives forward, one small step at a time.

Only Half The Equation Is Removing Macro Friction

Admittedly, it’s the fun half. Removing micro friction is the more rational but equally important component of the equation. Micro friction sits at the brand level. It is anything that impacts someone’s ability to purchase or use a product.

It’s everywhere. It’s the plastic packaging that requires a machete to open. It’s the instruction manual that requires a Mensa genius to comprehend it. It’s the airline boarding pass that requires a magnifying glass to find the gate number. It’s the telephone support that leaves a caller on hold indefinitely. It’s the person behind the counter who doesn’t smile when asked a basic question.

Fighting micro friction has increased in importance because the relationship between brands and consumers has become increasingly complex. Not long ago, there were primarily two key touchpoints between a brand and its audience: advertising and retail. Brands like The Gap could develop a clean, organized, bright retail environment with relatively cool products and dominate the competition.

Now, there’s an almost infinite number of ways that brands touch consumers, and most of them are digital in nature. This digital-centric relationship has created exponentially growing sources of micro friction. It can be found on the website that isn’t optimized for mobile, in videos that take too long to get to the point, in the hidden ratings and reviews, in the confusing error warnings, in clumsy checkout processes, in pop-up windows, in failed log-ins, in malfunctioning voice recognition replies, and thousands of other places that create stress.

The Frictionless Revolution

We are witnessing entire industries being revolutionized by brands that remove macro and micro friction. Take restaurants for example. The macro friction is that food should nurture, but oftentimes it simply makes us unhealthy. So brands like Sweetgreen offer completely organic meals that are served as quickly and conveniently as fast food. But it’s the micro friction–fighting tactics that bring the macro friction platform to life. There is virtually no friction in the entire experience.

The containers are completely recyclable. You can’t buy bottles of water, but they’ll give you a cup for free water. There’s information about calorie counts and food sources. You don’t even need to wait online. Their mobile app enables users to place orders and pick them up at predetermined times with complete meal customization.

One might think this is some elitist brand that doesn’t represent mainstream users. When I sat down to conduct research with customers at one of their locations to discuss this exact topic, a maintenance worker from my building walked in to pick up the lunch he ordered on his app. I’ll take that as a pretty strong data point coupled with some ironic timing.

Consumers have too many options to have patience with a bad brand relationship. If they run into headwinds, they can quickly shift to a different brand or merchant. It only requires one simple click for users to abandon a brand and less than a minute at the keyboard to complain about their experience to millions of others.

Removing either macro or micro friction will make a good brand. Removing both creates a passion brand, one with a user base that is not only loyal but actively proselytizes. It doesn’t work to fight one without the other, because each depends on the other. Removing macro friction without addressing micro friction will make the brand seem inauthentic. Removing micro friction without addressing macro friction will fail to make an emotional connection.

People are bombarded with brand messages every moment they’re awake. Decisions are made in seconds. People read social posts, not Shakespeare. All this has changed the way brains function.

Human beings are not patient. They don’t need to be. There are too many new startups that focus on removing friction through digital tools. There are too many competitors in any category. Removing macro and micro friction is not only about creating a passion brand, it is critical for survival. It doesn’t matter what category you are in, Uber is your competition. Customers have no empathy for your brand. They only have heightened expectations.

Contributed to Branding Strategy Insider by: Jeff Rosenblum and Jordan Berg, excerpted from their book Friction: Passion Brands in the Age of Disruption, published by powerHouse Books

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