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Brad VanAuken Brand Differentiation

Too Many Brands Make Hollow Claims

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Increasingly, I have encountered brands that make the following types of claims:

  • We are the quality leader in the X category,
  • We are the innovation leader in the Y category,
  • We are the service leader in the Z category, or worst of all,
  • We are the leader in the XYZ category.

Is quality important? Yes. Is Innovation important? Absolutely.

Is service important? Of course. Is it desirable to be the industry leader? Sure. However, in more and more categories, as I perform brand audits, I find that large numbers of companies in many categories make these claims, so much so that the claims have become hollow. “Leader” means top, #1, not one of many striving to be top, #1. Don’t claim an aspiration unless you can uniquely deliver on that aspiration.

Regarding quality, who is the leader in the hotel industry? Ritz Carlton with its “Ladies and gentlemen serving ladies and gentlemen” or Four Seasons or Mandarin Oriental or Peninsula or Amanresorts or Shangri-La or InterContinental? With this list of high quality hotel chains, should Hyatt or Westin or Marriott or Sheraton or Hilton claim quality leadership? Who makes the highest quality shoes? Who makes the highest quality kitchen appliances? Who makes the highest quality shampoo? How about the highest quality kitchen knives? Why? Based on what? Is one independent ranking enough to make it so?

Are some companies real innovation leaders? Sure. Who would argue that Apple is not an innovation leader in its category with its introductions of the iPod, iPhone and iPad? If your company is claiming innovation as its primary point of difference, is it as far ahead of its competition in reality and perception as Apple is in its category? Or is it in a pack of companies, each of which has introduced a comparable number of innovations. In the grocery store business, Wegmans has been widely recognized as the innovation leader over time. Trader Joe’s is also innovative, but with a different formula. In the auto industry, which company should claim innovation leadership? Toyota because it was the first with a significant introduction of hybrid cars? GM because of its introduction of OnStar? BMW because of its constant innovations? How about Honda or Porsche?

Do some companies stand out as service leaders? I would contend that Ritz Carlton and Nordstrom’s would vie for this position in their respective industries. Who is the service leader in banking? In wealth management? How about in insurance? In restaurants? In hospitals? How does service leadership relate to quality leadership?

And what does it mean to be the overall leader in a category? What is the metric for leadership? Market share? Distribution? Dollar sales? Unit sales? Customer loyalty? Leadership is a fairly vague term. Leadership, but in what? How important is quality to leadership? Service to leadership? Innovation?

I would contend that quality, service and innovation are critical to most companies in most industries. Every organization should try to continuously improve its delivery of each of these. However, unless you are the undisputed leader in one of these, you should not claim it as your primary differentiating benefit.

I would never try to claim industry leadership. It is a title that can only be conferred through general consensus by outside observers over time. And, I would only claim quality, service or innovation leadership, if the following hurdles were cleared:

  • Your brand is the undisputed leader in this area as evidenced by customer research,  independent rankings, specific proof points and truly measurable differences
  • You consistently deliver against this across all of your products and services at all of your locations/distribution points
  • At least as perceived/recognized by your primary target audiences

Finally, if I made one of these claims, I would make sure that I had the resources in place to insure consistent superiority in this area for a very long time. Don’t manage a brand that contributes to the hollow claims of quality, service or innovation leadership. Rather, manage a brand that claims something truly unique, compelling and believable to its target audiences. The organizations that can convincingly claim leadership in one of these three areas (quality, service and innovation) are rare indeed.

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8 Comments

Joey Strawn on June 01st, 2010 said

I have noticed this trend a lot too. It seems that every Joe-Blow cafe in every city in America makes “The World’s Best Coffee” and so on. It’s sad that the phrase “best” or “#1″ mean almost nothing to consumers anymore.

I know personally, unless I see proof of the claim or simply know (take Apple for an example), I gloss right over the “we’re the best” claim and start looking for actual value.

Thanks for this post and I hope more companies and brands do these kinds of audits and we can get to where we are actually shopping in a quality-based industry in the future.

Raul Peters on June 01st, 2010 said

We need to stop redefining the term “innovation.” The ipad is not innovative. It’s a tablet device and a fairly weak one at that. Apple hasn’t innovated anything since the Newton and that is arguable too.

Too many companies claim to be innovative, but a minuscule number of them are creating anything new or inventing anything. Improvement, or differences are not innovation. Your point is great, but I think it applies mostly to these companies claiming they’re innovative when they are not. That’s just as bad as claiming service leadership. Very little innovation occurs nowadays, it’s all differences and some improvement.

Katherine Walters on June 01st, 2010 said

in·no·vate   /ˈɪnəˌveɪt/
–verb (used without object)
1.to introduce something new; make changes in anything established.

I just copy and pasted the definition of the word innovate. TO MAKE CHANGES IN ANYTHING ESTABLISHED. Innovation is happening all around us. To say that Apple is not innovative is absurd (and I’m a PC user).

Alex Villeneuve on June 02nd, 2010 said

I agree with you that they’re a lot of weak brand positions and hollow claims.

However, I think positions based on service, innovation, and/or quality are inherently weak because the terms undefined, mean different things to different people.

What one person thinks may be incredible quality, another may not. Do consumers really know what is true quality for every product they use. Not really. We make assumptions to that based on trust in brand names.

I think it’s much stronger to be more specific in claims and positions. Consumers will then make the associations themselves.

Thanks, great read.

Raul Peters on June 02nd, 2010 said

in·no·vate n-vt

VERB:
in·no·vat·ed, in·no·vat·ing, in·no·vates

VERB: tr.
To begin or introduce (something new) for or as if for the first time.

VERB: intr.
To begin or introduce something new.

I can cut and paste too. This has always been the definition of innovate. My point is that we’re watering the term down. Again, Apple hasn’t innovated since the Newton and even that is questionable.

Elizabeth on June 02nd, 2010 said

I hear these types of claims left and right from businesses to schools to the performing arts. Sadly you can’t depend on these claims because they are just thrown out now without research and proof!

Ggruber66 on June 03rd, 2010 said

Agree with @Raul and @Katherine wrt “innovation”…although I like my iPad.

But the other term that needs to be banned from marketers’ vocabularies is “unique”. Almost no claim that you see as unique is so. Most are actually common which is about as far from unique as you can get. It reminds me of one of my favorite movie lines, from the Princess Bride (swap unique with inconceivable):

[Vizzini has just cut the rope The Dread Pirate Roberts is climbing up]
Vizzini: HE DIDN’T FALL? INCONCEIVABLE.
Inigo Montoya: You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.

Jay Krish on June 08th, 2010 said

It’s not just about the word used in making a claim. If you do use words like “innovative” and “unique”, and manage to live up to the claim… then it’s all good.

The problem is most brands make a claim in their tagline or communication, and then simply do not follow-through in delivering the claim.

Besides the marketing/communications department, few of the rest seem to know what a particular claim is all about.

I mean, if you’re the “best”, it better bloody well be as close to “best” as possible or risk losing customers.

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