In 2015 Uber, the world’s largest taxi company owns no vehicles, Facebook the world’s most popular media owner creates no content, Alibaba, the most valuable retailer has no inventory and AirBnB the world’s largest accommodation provider owns no real estate. What is it about this simple statement of fact that has compelled so many to share it across social networks?
All shared content gives the sharer some level of badge value driven by the four primary relational motivations. For example: A share of an inspirational quote might blend affection (what we value) and excellence (a standard we want to set). A share of an info-graphic on ‘the rise of mobile payments’ might cross competition (something as marketers we know more about than most people), excellence (subject matter we can demonstrate competence) and curiosity (subjects we’re actively interested in). The share provides some intrinsic value that communicates and validates to our tribe (or a tribe we want to join), “We belong.”
At best, the shares of this particular content seem motivated by curiosity, but what is most interesting is a near total absence of commentary in the sharers’ posts. It is reasonable to assume a high percentage of the network’s members won’t spend the time adding their view, but it might also indicate that, while we recognize these observations to be important, we might not know what to make of it, or worse, we have made our own meaning from it, but fear sharing it as it might alienate us from our tribe.
Last November, Mark DiSomma looked at Brand success from two perspectives: Ideas or Access. He asks, “Who gets to decide price, margin and even quality? The creators – who believe that the idea does not exist without them? Or the distributors – who are of the view that the idea won’t sell without them? The dilemma – who is most effective in realizing the value of the brand? The answer, according to Christine Arden, is whoever touches the customer last.”
Familiarity is something every marketer craves for their brand. They want the marque they are responsible for to be known, asked for, a household name. But does icon status in and of itself guarantee anything anymore?
In 2013 on Branding Strategy Insider, I examined how companies were able to create iconic advertising. Last week in an article on the proposed Heinz-Kraft merger, Teresa Lindeman observed that the center aisles of grocery stores were the epicenter of innovation a century ago, and that many of the resulting products, from these two companies, went on to achieve that coveted icon status. Processed cheese, condiments, Planters, Miracle Whip, ketchup … Household names indeed. But as Don Stuart points out, products like these may be seen as icons but that status alone doesn’t necessarily drive sales. “You remember them fondly. But they may not be part of your regular routine.” After all, “Millennials don’t necessarily put Miracle Whip on every sandwich, keep a jar of Planters peanuts in the cabinet or cook Oscar Mayer hot dogs and dump some Heinz ketchup on them.”
When these two companies come together to form the third-largest food and beverage company in North America, will growth spring from expanding the footprint of the collective brand footprint or shrinking the cost base? I’m reminded of the observation that if you were to cross-breed a blue whale and an elephant, you wouldn’t end up with a sports car. There’s no indication that bringing big things together results in a new thing that is sleeker or goes faster. Equally, bringing iconic brands together in a super-portfolio does not automatically upgrade the relevance of the brands involved. It simply groups what is already familiar in ways that appeal to shareholders but may or may not work for consumers.
That’s the danger of familiarity, or rather over-familiarity, at a time when attention spans are shorter than they have ever been. What people recognize and what they are drawn to are not one and the same thing. Icons can quickly become statues – big, imposing but lacking any sense of life. In order for this behemoth to flourish, presence alone will not be enough. The new business will need to leverage their new-found scale to re-shape the nature and direction of the middle aisle once again. And they will be doing so at a time when, according to CNBC, consumers are moving away from processed foods. The industry, that has been long very safe and predictable, is now experiencing unsettling breakdowns in barriers to entry.
Marketers can be surprisingly heavy-handed. The temptation, especially with big brands, is to thunder out answers that let customers know, in unequivocal terms, that they have been recognized. Think about the almost coarse way in which airlines greet their frequent fliers – with a bunch of features dressed up as privileges and a tiered recognition system that allocates them a color.
It’s almost as if brands can’t help themselves. Informed by the mountains of data they have collected, many seem compelled to flash this knowledge under the noses of buyers, and to deliver “experiences” that are framed around that knowledge. Even customer-centric organizations like Amazon let you know what they know. So does Google. So does Facebook. In the cases of Google and Facebook, the ad placements are so blatant that everyone with an ounce of awareness recognizes that what they are being served up is no coincidence.
And that’s my point. Perhaps brands should be a little more circumspect in how they frame what people get. Not to be deceitful or opaque – but because happenstance is a powerful motivation for anyone. Coincidence turns the everyday into the extraordinary. And that sense of surprise – that unexpected but fulfilling encounter – is an opportunity too often missed it seems to me.
The experiences we remember as consumers are not the manufactured moments that everyone else got too. The times we remember are the ones that were special to us, that seemed to arrive with perfect singularity and that transformed something that was otherwise uneventful into an instance that we love to replay – even years later. In a world where so much is expected and too little is spontaneous, perhaps it’s time brands found ways to design for surprise.
Three seemingly unrelated articles got me thinking today about the future of brand competitiveness in a world where the competitors are increasingly globally scaled.
Conventional knowledge suggests that brands square off in the arena of public awareness. Each party assembles its awareness and loyalty generators and then launches a charm offensive to consumers offering them multiple reasons and multiple channels to choose them over others. In the fight between big and big, that’s a relatively straightforward competition. But how do you take on the biggest brands in the world if you are a much smaller marketing force or if you’re looking for an alternative strategy?
Perhaps you do so by not taking them on directly. And perhaps you don’t take them on alone. The thought for this came from an article by Stan McChrystal on the lessons he learned in Iraq: that a massive and powerful adversary can be seriously affected by a much, much smaller force that leverages its network and moves quickly to find points of vulnerability. The relevance of McChrystal’s point, that it takes a network to defeat a network, for business today is captured neatly in this thought. “Our organization was designed for a problem that no longer existed; we had brought an industrial age force to an information-age conflict…I believe this same challenge confronts organizations in every sector of the modern environment.”
Now combine that idea of competing via a wired network with this one from an article on the branding of global dissent: that a brand centered on principle will act as a powerful cohesion point for diverse people. As the article points out, people will address issues together, under a banner, that they would not address individually. From the article: “[Gene] Sharp … in 1973 outlined “198 Methods of Nonviolent Action” in the first of many of his works that provide a road map for orchestrating protest movements around the world…Sharp’s list defines how to create a unique and recognizable identity for a movement. It recommends establishing “symbolic colors,” slogans, caricatures, sounds and symbols in service of the greater cause” Brand, by any other name.
How do these ideas come together? They suggest that a powerful brand strategy may lie in applying the same principles to the way a brand competes. That, instead of going head to head, companies could employ an asymmetrical brand strategy; one that coalesces people into a network centered around a “protest”- based principle (using social media for example) and then uses that principle as a guerrilla tactic to compete with rivals at points where they are most vulnerable.
Considering a luxury brand strategy? Begin with the fundamentals. Luxury brands don’t start with prestige and premium – they begin with a founder who inevitably comes from the middle of society rather than the top. Madam Chanel was an orphan, Guccio Gucci a merchant’s son from Florence – founders are artisans not aristocrats.
Next you have to examine the categories where they launched their businesses. To our eyes today, a category like champagne is an ancient and established one. But back when a young monk named Pierre Perignon was experimenting with the fermentation of grapes, the name Champagne simply meant a region.
To a visionary founder working in a new category, we must next add a moment of creativity or sublime innovation. For a young man from Basingstoke named Thomas Burberry it was the creation of a new fabric called gabardine – a water-resistant yet breathable fabric. For a middle-aged entrepreneur named Louis Vuitton it was the addition of canvas to his trunks as a means to ensure they were totally waterproof and could be produced in flat, stackable units – as opposed to having rounded peaks to ward off the rain.
And then add the final magic ingredient: time. Decades must pass. The founder must die. The clients must die. And time must move on until the brand eventually acquires a luster of exclusivity and heritage. Where once they were radical, now they becomes classic. And there you have it – the formula for a luxury brand.