West Strategist → Brandon Hightower explores some of the fundamental truths about the technologies of today and how and why we have to build brands that matter.
I think many people are drawn to work in technology because of the outsized impact new technology can have on the world. I’ve always wanted to do something with my life that truly mattered, something that moves our society forward, but I don’t believe in the speed (or lack thereof) of politics. I came to love technology because it is the front line of human progress.
But I realized after studying physics and engineering that the most effective way to impact change isn’t necessarily to build more sophisticated technology—there’s plenty of that.
What we actually need are more translators.
Translators who not only know where the technology train is going and can communicate to the rest of the world why they should get on board, but can also help guide where that train is going as it starts to accelerate. Without those translators, tech will fail to deliver on the impact it promises.
Tech often pushes you into a futuristic world. Some technologists love the idea of inventing the “science” in “science fiction”. As someone who grew up reading Wells and Asimov, I understand the desire. It is, after all, a very human thing to seek out the novel and explore the unknown. (Just look at the giddiness around the blockchain or more recently the metaverse.) But people don’t adopt technology just because it is new.
There will always be a gap between what is technologically feasible and what the end user cares about. It is only when people see the way that a technology will materially improve their lives that technology becomes adopted. Said another way, tech without a problem to solve is useless. As someone who also grew up feeling that no one understood me more than Kanye West, today I feel like the greater thrill is when you take tech and make it visceral. Make it emotional. Make it matter.
At West, the key question we ask when faced with a new founder and their newly birthed product is “Why does this matter … and to whom?” This means starting with the human and their unmet needs, and then grounding yourself in the wider societal and cultural context––uncovering the human truths. What does your product do that truly creates value and what is it all in service of anyway? This is the first step in building a brand.
One of the most repeated lines at West is that “thebestproductneverwins.Thebestbranddoes.” This is true of almost every category you can think of (Coca-Cola is bad for you, BMWs still break down, and yes, even Kanye has his bad days), but it’s potentially most underleveraged in technology––an industry built on the unflinching belief in the power of engineering.
There is also a misconception––which I uncovered even in my early engineering days––about what constitutes a brand. That “brand” is this thing that only marketers and designers deal with––equating it to a pretty wrapper you slap on the product after it’s been built. So another popular line here at West has become that a “brand is the sum total of every interaction you have with a product.” Not only does this statement suggest that it’s more than a clever tagline or color palette, it signals that brand must be the lifeblood of the whole organization, including the product teams.
In that universe, technology is no longer an isolated solution, but instead serves as the backbone of a product or service that emotionally resonates with a customer not only for the benefit and function it provides, but also for the broader direction it points towards, constructed through a universe of textures, tones, color, and code.
But at the very heart of it all remains the question, “Why does this matter?” Because as the world faces some of the biggest challenges in living memory, and more money, people, and businesses put their faith in technological innovation, more than ever, our tech needs to matter.