Marketers often talk about being a brand leader as if it is one thing. But there are many different ways that a brand can distinguish itself in a marketplace. The critical decision for brand owners is deciding how you will lead and why that will work.
1. Scale – The immediately obvious strategy. You build a bigger, more imposing brand than your competitors; one that enables you to heavily influence critical market rules. You use this size and market dominance to become the looked-for brand in your sector across the world. This strategy focuses on footprint and familiarity but of course it takes time, acuity and plenty of capital.
2. Price – You can develop brands that attract above-market margins because they’re craved. The focus on margin-per-product means you can pursue leadership through returns, so size is actually far less important. You can even be low profile. This strategy focuses on excellence and esteem. You’ll fight the price-cutting imitators though all the way to the bank.
3. Thinking – You can drive what the market talks about by putting your brand at the epicenter of what gets discussed. Thought leader status will get you attention and coverage which will in turn increase your overall presence and potential influence. Your biggest challenge will be to convert that reach into bankable returns.
4. Likeability – You can be the brand that everyone would like the others to be and the one whose behaviors, products and attention to detail are quoted as exemplary. You’ll need a powerful and compelling sales funnel to convert all that love into dollars. And public emotion can shift quickly, so while this is an enjoyable option it’s not necessarily a bankable one.
5. Change – You can rock the boat. You can drive shifts in performance, mindset, reach, payment, interest, audiences and/or product. You can be the research-driven brand that everyone looks to for next actions; the brand that never sleeps. Not everything you do will score a home run (perhaps it’s not intended to), but you’ll need at least one shape-shifter hit to make all the prospecting worth it.
A colleague of mine made an observation recently that if you really want to make significant changes as a brand, you should go all out and look for something…dull. That’s right, find something uneventful, even pedestrian – and poke it for opportunities.
And the reasons, on reflection, are simple. Chances are people do whatever it is often. So it comes with scale and frequency. And secondly, if it’s that tedious, frankly the only way is up. High energy, exciting activities already have high EQ by their very nature. And they attract the most interest from brands. So the chances of doing anything breakthrough are so much harder. Dull stuff is out of the limelight. It’s dull and it stays dull for most people until someone does something to change that.
So it’s actually a lot less difficult to make the boring better: to take something that people don’t want to do or don’t enjoy doing, and to inject new elements and ideas that surprise and delight. Wii made exercising at home fun by combining it with gaming. Obvious on reflection – but it sure the hell worked. Apple makes shopping appealing (even for men) by giving even those who aren’t into IT something physical, fashionable and beautiful to fidget with. They understood that many people were completely turned off by computer stores – so they went out of their way to make shopping for their stuff feel as ungeeky as possible.
What brands should be looking for, according to Luke Williams, a fellow at Frog Design, is not so much the big pain points as what he terms “tension points”: those things that are annoying or less than perfect but not big enough to be considered problems. He cites the example of Dutch Boy Paint which introduced a Twist & Pour container featuring an easy twist-off lid and a neat-pour spout. It did away with the need to pry open the lid with a screwdriver and reduced spilling and dripping. Read the article. It’s very good.
But often brands can take this further than answering problems. They can develop ways of thinking about what they do that challenge disinterest at every level – because that’s the real issue. That’s the brand-killer.
In a market filled with possibilities, there is power and focus in constraint. I pressed this point home last week in a discussion on why brands can’t just continue to add to their visual language. The argument I was getting – we need an extended palette to show the diversity of what we do and to prevent our brand looking monochromatic. My view – that adding layer upon layer of visual language to a brand doesn’t free up anything. On the contrary, it adds complexity that make no sense to buyers and that end up looking confused in the shopping aisle.
There’s always a reason to add more detail for those who want to find one: “we need to tell people this”; or “that snippet is interesting”; or “they won’t know what to do if we don’t explain this in detail”. But marketing is not about an outpouring of information, at least not for the sake of it. Marketing is about clarity and simplicity and giving people reasons to engage. Cluttered brand language systems are not clear to anyone beyond those who designed them. The consistency of brands, and the discipline that requires, is what gives them their power and equity.
Marketers struggle sometimes to pace brands to the speeds of consumers. There’s a tendency to believe that everything must change, change, change – and that brands that aren’t always adding or shifting will lose attention. All the talk of innovation and customer impatience fuels that. The reality is something different. Buyers need brands to be familiar and interesting, not one or the other.
In an address at an Evernote conference last year, Stewart Brand made these observations about societal change that are equally relevant, albeit within much shorter timeframes, for those contemplating changes to brands. Society, he says, moves and changes at different speeds and those layered paces of change are healthy: “the fast parts learn; the slow parts remember. The fast parts suppose things; slow parts dispose things and keeps things that are important. The fast is discontinuous (moves in quick cycles); the slow is continuous. The fast and small instruct the slow and big with accrued innovation and occasional revolutions. At the same time…the slow and big parts control the fast and small with constraints and with constancy.”
Branding Strategy Insider helps marketing oriented leaders and professionals like you build strong brands. BSI readers know, we regularly answer questions from marketers everywhere. Today we hear from Michelle, a journalist in San Francisco who writes…
“I’m working on a story on this week’s news about SeaWorld’s new ad campaign ‘#AskSeaWorld’, which takes the company’s opponents head on by addressing its care and concern for killer whales at a time when there has been considerable backlash on that very topic.
I want to gauge why SeaWorld might be taking this approach while in the midst of crisis (attendance and revenue are falling), what’s at stake and how and whether SeaWorld might gain or lose with this approach. I would love to get your insights into this one!”
Thanks for your question Michelle. Every brand is subject to potential criticism. It’s part of participating in the hyper-connected world in which we all do business. SeaWorld needs to see the documentary and the campaign that followed as part of the atmosphere of scrutiny that all brands are under today.
It should come as no surprise to anyone that not for profit organizations such as PETA have added social media tools to their communications arsenal to publicize the things they care about.
SeaWorld needed to respond to the criticisms that had been leveled against them through the Blackfish documentary. That film did the company a great deal of reputational harm. They needed to respond because if they didn’t they risked an ongoing conversation that would do them no favors. SeaWorld’s reaction time has been slow by today’s standards.
The stark reality for most brands, particularly those integrated into a supply chain, is that if your presence is not seen to be value-adding, then chances are it is perceived as value-costing.
If indeed you pride yourselves on being able to value add, you can expect to be continually challenged on the difference you generate for the margin you charge. If you don’t, then replacement by another supplier or another channel, is probably only a question of time.
But perceptions as we all know are a moving feast. As priorities change and new technology shifts the frameworks, operations and expectations of businesses and consumers across industries, the continuing question for many brands it seems to me is this stark: What’s valuable now? The second question is more knotty: What’s our take on that?
Grow with us. The Un-Conference: 360 Degrees of Brand Strategy for a Changing World. May 18th ~ 20th at the famed Versace Mansion in South Beach, Florida. A fun, competitive-learning experience reserved for 40 marketing oriented leaders and professionals. *Special Offer Available for MENG and AMA Members*
Branding Strategy Insider is a service of The Blake Project: A strategic brand consultancy specializing in Brand Research, Brand Strategy, Brand Licensing and Brand Education
FREE Publications And Resources For Marketers