“Given them what they want – just not the way they expect to get it.” Robert McKee, as told to us in his 3 day Story Seminar.

 The How, Not the What.

Brands that have lasting impact aren’t the ones that focus on the what. The what gets commoditized pretty quickly. What is the intellectual property, the patent work behind the idea, that the competition views online and quickly end-runs.

The how is the experience wrapped around the what that makes people prefer you over them.

Method is a how brand. They make admittedly great stuff: sustainably formulated cleaning products that don’t smell like chemicals, all packaged in aesthetically well-designed packaging.

But the intangibles in betwixt and between are what make the brand work over time. The tension between the design elements, the sustainable mission and the brand personality makes them a hard brand to imitate successfully. Brands that try will end up looking like impersonators, not imitators. And caricatures always fail.

As Eric Ryan related to me, “If we had been a one dimensional brand, the big guys would have figured us out long ago.”

42Below vodka, owned by Bacardi now since its acquisition in 2006, is a how brand.

Vodka, by law, is ethanol and water. It has no taste. Its purity can be rather subjective. And yet this brand – stepped in what founder Geoff Ross described as its “New Zealandishness,” is impossible to copy.

42Below is an unapologetic brand with a brash attitude that mixes well with its reputation for quality, as described on its website as the “world’s most awarded vodka.” It’s a lifestyle brand in a branded landscape overrun by cool, passionless Euro and faux-Euro brands that all speak of frozen tundras and turtlenecks.

42Below pokes us in the ribs (and sometimes the eye), because, as Geoff very aptly related to me, “everyone loves the lovable rogue.” It’s a how brand.

MINI is a how brand. Apple is a how brand. Go Daddy is a how brand – just call their customer service line and see how you’re treated compared to their alternatives. Conservation International is a how brand, using debt-for-nature swaps to fight deforestation in developing countries and promoting sustainable economic initiatives for indigenous people. Sony used to be a how brand and I hope it returns.

Why is How more important than What?

How you do what you do is more than just “differentiation” or “customer service” or any other trite label. Your how is what makes you memorable, sticky and durable.  How is experience. How is intangibles and emotions, whether stated or unstated (or even unrecognized and unarticulated).

As my friend and colleague at Decision Triggers, Dr. Steven Feinberg, often tells me, “Vivid is more important than valid.”

Our ability to shift perception, our willingness to focus on how we deliver what we deliver, our discipline to package our work and finish in a way that others would happily leave undone is what separates great brands from everyone and everything else.

Are you focused on the How? Or the What?