In this fast-changing world, companies cannot afford the luxury of a brand positioning that ties them down to a narrow set of features and benefits. What they need is the ability to quickly take advantage of new opportunities when they emerge and shift away from old business models when they are no longer relevant. They need branding to support their need for speed.
To accommodate this business imperative, brand positioning has to offer a broader perspective with fewer constraints. Narrow positioning won’t work for companies that have to reinvent themselves over and over again.
That’s why you see companies taking a broader perspective, associating themselves with higher-order values rather than what-we-do detail. One approach is to talk about brand purpose, a more general and flexible concept that seeks to establish differentiation by identifying the unique benefit that the company brings to the world. This approach doesn’t just work for companies like Patagonia or Ben & Jerry’s —it works for companies like LinkedIn too, which is guided by its true north vision “To create economic opportunity for every member of the global workforce.”
But whether companies choose to focus on their purpose or simply develop a more general brand statement, there’s still a branding gap—the focus and clarity and fact-based differentiation that would be covered by a: “In a market characterized by (consumer need), only (brand) can (meet that need) by (how it meets the need) giving consumers (the benefit)” type statement.
One way to bring back specificity is to inject branding into the products and services that the company offers. By developing a brand architecture where products and services are positioned against tangible features and benefits, companies can bring back brand focus and detail as they talk about how they serve particular market needs.
Outside-in change is prompted by shifts beyond the immediate control of the brand. Those prompts could be competitive, reputational or sectoral. They could manifest in symptoms as varied as a drop in credibility, a slump in market share or a shift in profitability within a sector as a whole. Whatever the signal, these declines prompt a brand to make sometimes radical changes in a quest to re-set how it is valued by consumers and respected by rivals.
One or more of four outs usually apply:
- You have been outpaced – you’re not keeping with up the changes in consumer buying patterns, expectations and/or attitudes. You need to shorten your reaction and/or development times or risk being left behind.
- You have been outsmarted – your competitors have done something clever – an innovation or an improvement – that has completely changed how they compete. Consumers have welcomed the change. Now you must react.
- You have been outshone – someone else has stolen the eye of buyers, and they’ve shifted their attention and their wallets. Chances are your profile and/or your story, or rather the lack of them, are to blame. You need to find new ways to be interesting or risk further relegation.
- You have outraged – you did something stupid or failed to do something right, and now people are not happy with you. You need to do two things simultaneously: arrest the public damage; and address the internal controls that allowed whatever happened to happen.
In any of these circumstances, the brand is primarily looking for ways to stem losses and then to regroup and counter-attack. Both steps are important.
It’s critical to understand how you got into the position you are in. The overarching question is brutally direct, but critically important: “Why and where have we failed?” Management generally squirm at history lessons I’ve found – afraid they’ll turn into a witch-hunt – but unless the reasons for your decline are known and the pace of decline understood, it’s very difficult to know what to address in the marketplace and the speed at which that change must occur. If you don’t know, you will find yourselves simply throwing tactics at your competitors in increasingly desperate attempts to slow the damage.
I enjoy seeing people poke business models, but it’s important that when you look to disrupt a business that you do so without assumptions. The call by Marc Ruxin of Universal McCann to rethink the creative department of ad agencies is a great idea but my sense is that his suggestions still assume the battle is for attention, and that winning that attention and holding it via great content, well presented, is critical to achieving consumer preference.
The noise preventing that, he says, is formidable. Brands are trying to get their messages heard and acted upon in an environment of 150 million tweets a day, 700 billion minutes a month on Facebook, 300 million global players of Zynga games, 200 million Daily Deal subscribers…
I’m far from convinced though that attention and preference are a linear progression. And I think we need to insert at least three further filters into that zig-zag of decision making: notice, consider and purchase. You may gain a consumer’s attention momentarily, but until they choose to escalate that attention and actually take notice of you, there’s no way they’re going to consider you, never mind prefer you – and even then, they may not buy.
It seems to me Mr. Ruxin is still trying to run an interruption model based on see, want, get. I feel he still thinks content is the make or break, and he’s now looking to adapt that model to fit the new channels that consumers now occupy their time with. That doesn’t so much require a rethink of the creative department as it requires the creative and media departments to rethink their approach and to adopt new skills. Not quite the same thing.
In his article, the author suggests: “It is a new world: Brands + Skillfully Placed Media Investments + The Right Platforms + The Right Partner + The Right Offer = Creative Success” Two things about that. I don’t think that’s a new world at all. That equation doesn’t look any different from the way it looked when I started in advertising – it’s just that the media, platforms and partners themselves have changed. And there’s no reason to believe that ‘Creative Success’ is the result anyone should be seeking anyway. That’s an agency metric, not a commercial one.
It’s always fascinating to compare how you see your place in the market with how others see you. If you’re in a very small market like New Zealand and you look out, you see the whole world before you. There seem to be endless opportunities.
But step around to the other side of the world and look back, and you see a market like New Zealand from a completely different perspective. It seems small and hard to find.
The issue of course is not specific to place brands. It’s applicable to all brands that are small in comparison to the scaled markets they would like to reach. The brands themselves see a panorama. The world looking at all the choices available to them from so many sources discerns barely a speck.
This is quite literally ‘funnel vision’. Your perspective depends entirely on what end of the funnel you are looking from – the scaled end or the narrow end.
The only way that situation can change is when the brand at the narrow end finds ways to increase its profile and presence, so that it literally looms larger in the minds of those far away. Search and social media can help do that. Partnerships and supply chains can also add proximity.
The purser on the plane this morning reminded us as we landed that the airline had just won two industry awards. She didn’t name them but the point was made. Endorsement brings that extra degree of confirmation that we as consumers have made a good choice. It plays to our collective wish to make wise purchases. It tells us we got it right.
The lack of specifics doesn’t matter. Schemas – the snapshot opinions that we form of people, places, things – are hugely powerful influencers. They help us navigate too many choices, too many questions, too much conflicting information, too little time. They motivate us to engage.
Without realizing it, we form schemas for almost everything. Some are positive. Some are negative. Some are unjustified, either way. But the most common one is actually blank. It says “I don’t know what to think”. People literally don’t have a clue.