I’ve written a few times about the increasing popularity of a trend called mindful living. This trend is continuing to grow, along with rising awareness of what brands are and how consumers see themselves in the brand’s story. This awareness may allow consumers to become what JWT Intelligence calls “micropreneur stewards” of brands over time. With desire as the driving emotion in the marketplace, some emerging trends are shedding new light on what we might actually desire – and what that might mean for brands.
One-For-One; The New Way Commerce
The evolution of the social web has put enormous pressure on businesses to revise their models to factor in the human element. While especially true with millennials, we are seeing all age groups becoming more ethically minded, and as such, in considering brand affinity, consumers are looking for traits within a brand to help reinforce their own ethical mindset. Take Tom’s shoes for example: A foundation of their brand purpose is One-for-one: When consumers buy a pair of shoes, Tom’s sets aside another pair to donate. Founder Blake Mycoskie describes one-for-one as a “movement”: something bigger than commerce that will transform one category after another. This model is being replicated with different variations in other brands; In San Francisco, Munchery (in partnership with Uber and Foodrunners) donates a meal for every meal bought. There is a coffee maker which donates some amount of fresh water at level of purchase. Consumers are looking beyond the functional benefits of a product because they have more information to help them choose. Aligning higher purpose to key consumer beliefs makes it very easy for consumers to see themselves as heroes in a brand’s story.
I remember it like it was yesterday. On a cold, crisp October afternoon my girlfriend and I skipped school and drove for an hour to Kendal. It was the sort of thing you do when you’re 17, bored out of your mind and one of you has just passed their driving test but has nowhere in particular to drive to. I can’t remember the drive but I can remember why we picked Kendal. It had a McDonald’s – the only one in Cumbria.
And so we spent an entirely exotic afternoon trying our first-ever Big Macs and slurping down Cokes while dreaming of a future far away from school and all the other quotidian bullshit that comes with being old enough to know what you’re missing without being old enough to get it.
That was almost 30 years ago. To my great surprise I now find myself to be a middle-aged man with a family and a job and no idea what happened to my 17-year-old girlfriend (or my 17-year-old self, for that matter). But McDonald’s – that hasn’t changed. It’s been a long, long 30 years but for all the salads and nutritional guidelines that same Big Mac and Coke I enjoyed three decades ago on a freezing cold afternoon is pretty much the same as it was back then. And no matter what the half-baked brand theorists might preach, consistency is not the secret of branding. Not when you extrapolate that advice over 30 years.
The world is changing and some of the great brands of the 20th century have not responded with anything like the kind of market orientation one might expect. They have sucked up massive global profits but done so at the expense of proper long-term planning.
That was the underlying conclusion we took from the news last year that Coca-Cola would not only miss its profit forecast for 2014 but also for 2015. And then there was an even more startling update from McDonald’s – 12 consecutive months of declining sales in the US, European sales down by 4% and Chinese sales down 23%.
There is absolutely a place for models. Great structures deliver us frameworks for thinking. They provide a powerful grid within which to see interactions and consequences. They make a measured and systematic approach possible. For those of us working in the area of brand strategy, the theory and the pillars are well developed thanks to the sterling work of pioneers like Jack Trout and Al Ries. But in the spirit of Richard Feynman, we need to continue to question whether the systems and assumptions that we take so much for granted and use on a daily basis are as relevant and applicable as they once were, in a business world that is now digital, social, global and rapid.
There are 6 key drivers for any brand strategy in my opinion:
- Humanity – the behaviors and motivations of consumers and the perceived senses of personal priority that results from those habits and schemes;
- Value – the ability to effectively evaluate costing systems and to generate profit and margin that exceed what the market is inclined to give;
- Competitiveness – the ability to compete meaningfully and gainfully by being able to distinctualize an offering from everything else around it;
- Markets – the ability to understand the dynamics and tensions of a sector and the effects those factors will have on consumer predilections for a brand;
- Responsibility – the ability to develop brands that behave ethically, responsibly and with clear purpose; and
- Creativity – the willingness and skill to address and resolve an issue laterally, and to tell a fascinating story in wonderful language.
Much of the rest of what brand strategists do is process. It’s important but it really is a means to an end. Single minded propositions, positioning statements, values, even tone and manner – these are really just ways to group and structure our findings. They play a key role in a brand strategy, but having them alone is no guarantee that you have crafted a game changer. Models are the basis for thinking – and that’s a great thing. They are less helpful when they become a dogma. We need to retain the ability to work with process, but not work for process.
I’ll never write a book on branding. I don’t have the time to sit down and commit the months, probably years, it would take to create something of value on the topic of brand management. And the people I have spoken to who have committed that kind of time to writing a management book invariably regret it down the track.
But if I did write a book on branding I would call it Disruptively Consistent. And if it sold well I would bring out a sequel called Consistently Disruptive. The concept is the same whichever way you write it and I fundamentally believe that this paradoxical concept is at the very center of all great brand strategy.
Let me explain with one of my favorite case studies. In 2002, office retailer Staples had a problem. Its original positioning of offering the widest ranges at the lowest prices had worked so well against small, independent competitors that it had almost wiped them out. The problem for Staples was that this same positioning was now failing to differentiate it against its two remaining large national rivals – Office World and Office Depot. Worse still, the pricing part of that promise was now leading to some less than attractive margins as it went head to head with these two big competitors.
When Shira Goodman took over as Staples CMO, she quickly realized she had to come up with a new position for the brand given the current approach was no longer working. After months of research, the decision was made to focus away from price and range, given that they had become points of parity, and focus instead on an association that none of the big three players currently owned – easy. Staples would make buying office products easy.
Staples set about this new positioning challenge with vigor. It created a new logo with “that was easy” under the logo. It created the now famous Easy Button as a symbol. It launched a series of ads in which customers were shown being rescued from the complicated hell of office products by Staples and its Easy Button. It even launched an Invention Quest competition in which a prize was awarded each year for an entrepreneur who invented an office product that would make life easier for consumers. All completely on brand.
But it was the smallest and most subtle change that made the most impact. When Goodman reviewed the existing design of the Staples stores, she noticed that all the most popular products were right at the back of the store. When she inquired further she was told that this was standard retail practice. In a supermarket, for example, milk is always at the back of the store because that ensures that consumers are exposed to additional products, some of which they hopefully put into their cart. And it was the same with office retail. It was just the way that retailing was done.
If there are two hot topics that surmount all others when it comes to brand strategy, they are surely brand architecture and brand portfolio. At first sight these may appear to be relatively minor, rather superficial topics. The vast majority of organizations have never actually explicitly considered how many brands they need (their portfolio) or the manner in which those brands are combined or kept separate in the consumer’s mind (brand architecture).
And yet, despite the relative lack of corporate attention placed on them, portfolio and architecture issues are the main source of brand pain and profit trauma within most of the companies I have worked with. The reason most marketers underestimate their importance is simple – neither presents itself explicitly as a problem. You don’t wake up one morning and realize you need to trim your portfolio.
Instead, you uncover a problem with internet landing pages or business cards or cannibalization or sales force conflict, and eventually, after much sleuthing, you realize the issue is either down to too many brands or that they are organized in an inappropriate manner.
In more severe cases, you never work out that the wrong portfolio or architecture is killing your marketing effectiveness. I remember one tragic chief marketing officer at a very a large car brand that continued to extol the fact that “we don’t have too many brands, we just don’t market them well enough” until he was eventually fired. To this day, he does not realize that the second part of his observation was directly related to the first.
There are strong clues to the importance of trimming the portfolio. The best case studies are Procter & Gamble and Unilever. When I was a marketing undergraduate, these two beasts had more than 2,000 brands between them. Today they make most of their profits from a combination of 30 brands. I worked recently for an Australian organization that had 42 brands. The easiest way to point out the madness of their approach was to point out that despite enjoying less than 0.2 per cent of the profits of Unilever, they were operating more than double the number of brands.