It’s tempting when your product all but parallels that of your competitors to be drawn into a meaningless war: a fight for market share that revolves around devaluing (looking to price the other guy out), trivial pursuit (nit-picking on features in a bid to show technical advantage) or overshadowing (spending up large in mainstream media in a bid to raise “awareness”).
The problem with chasing competitive preference is that brands spend far too much time focusing on the competitive aspects and far too little insight on identifying where the preferences could lie.
All three approaches above are looking to provide consumers with reasons to buy, but while they may change perceptions, they actually do little to change affinity. It’s a distinction that’s easily overlooked. Changing what consumers think of you for now does not automatically translate into a shift in how consumers feel about you – especially in the longer term. They may, as a result of the above actions, see you as offering them more value, they may like the fact that your product contains ingredient X, you may even feel more familiar to them – but unless you have the pockets and tenacity to maintain the fight, and unless you too are prepared to up the ante even further in response to competitor activity, advances are tenuous.
If there is still little to distinguish what you offer and what others offer in their minds, you have not dismissed substitution because you have not changed the equation in their heads. You may have convinced them temporarily that they are getting more from you than they’re getting from the other brand, but the comparison is still quantitative not qualitative.
A reason for buying, on the other hand, provides a buyer with an incentive to chase a result. And the lesson from brands like Moleskine is that when you change the outcome for consumers, you change who they prefer and why they prefer.
Finding that starts with a deceptively simple question for brand owners: What are we going to give our customers that will excite them? A discount is not exciting. Features are not exciting. Familiarity is not exciting. Labels, identities, colors, celebrity endorsements – none of them are exciting. They may be exciting to the people who create them or manage them. But they are only of passing and functional interest to the man or woman in the aisle. They are just more ways to recognize. They explain.
I can’t even begin to imagine how many companies there are out there offering notebooks. The functional differences between those notebooks are non-existent, and yet Moleskine ties its products to a distinctive outcome that their audience craves. When you write in a Moleskine, you continue a tradition begun in a golden age of writing in Paris. You become part of a spirit that links to Hemingway and Picasso. Yes, that’s a beautiful and romantic story – but far more importantly, that feeling of inspired creation, of being in the moment and capturing something that will excite the world, is an outcome that every creative person treasures. It’s a ‘result’ that Moleskine has woven into every aspect of its business. They want their product to be more than something you write in. They want writing in a Moleskine to be an affirmation of the writer’s identity.
Starbucks changed the coffee market by convincing buyers not that they could have a nice(r) coffee, but that they could basically have the coffee of their dreams, served exactly the way they had always wanted it, in a place they loved to linger. When they stopped doing that, they quickly got into trouble.
Apple has consistently delivered people the most beautiful technology in the world (certainly by form, and for Macheads, also by performance).
Perhaps we should do away with the concept of competitive preference – and replace it instead with a mandate to find a competitive pleasure (result) that will then form the emotive basis for how the company does business. That’s because a distinctive and powerful outcome should also inspire and influence everything around it. Here are some examples:
- Your purpose should define what you value most in all the world, and therefore what you are most seeking to achieve as a brand. (That goal should be a goal your consumers will be fascinated by.)
- Your story should explain why you value what you value, the greatest result you want to achieve for your customers and what led you to pursue that
- Your strategy should explain why and how your brand can deliver that result in a way that no-one can, or would dare
- Your pricing should reflect what that special feeling is worth to the consumer
It’s clear. When you deliver what people are most looking for, they will continue to look for it – and they will continue to pay for it. After all, why would they want to feel anything less?
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