It’s tempting to believe that every brand must be vastly different and that every opportunity to push the boundaries should be taken if the brand is to win. But is there a case for normality that we’re missing here? Should, as Jay Bauer has suggested, brands stop trying to be amazing and just get on with being useful?
There’s a certain power in being mundane – in the sense that an everyday brand is exactly that. It has habit and predictability built into its very being. And as Riley Gibson points out, there’s a proof factor in that regularity that so many brands overlook in their bid to find the next big bang. He cites two great examples. The first, based on work that Professor Laura Kornish has done on consumer interactions, shows that “Sometimes it’s far more valuable to find patterns in what people are requesting than to find that one, big *I never thought of that* idea.” The second, based on studying how teens see their TV and internet usage, showed that “Sometimes, products are far ahead of their time because they assume a level of comfort that isn’t yet there in the consumer. That’s where the insights of the collective can be used to help us question everything.”
In both cases, the brands in question risked missing the small opportunities in their bid to find the great leap forward. What regularity offers is enough recurring events to form patterns and discover a moment for inflection that consumers may recognize but not necessarily know how to get past.
The learning here: that brands looking to improve their offering should first look to improve how and when the product is used and how else and where else it could be used. Easily. Quick win changes that may seem mundane, even unnecessary, to your brand’s technical and product people can add up to important improvements for consumers.
Recently Budweiser has been taking flak for its continuing aggressive stance against craft beers. Social media reaction at least seems to be that this is an unfair fight and that the big corporate should not be competing in this way. I’m a long-time advocate of challenger brand strategy. I’m of the view that if you can goad the incumbent into a fight and portray your brand as the much smaller player with principles, then it’s game-on. But what if you’re on the other side of the counter? If you’re a major brand and you’re being hounded by an upstart smaller player, how can you respond without drawing flak or encouraging buyers to support the underdog-that-dared?
Start by recognizing the strengths that you have to play with: an established place in the market; the reach that comes with your networks; the reserves to play the long game; and the resources to at least match, and at best overpower, anything that others may throw at you. Chances are you also have history (and therefore track record) on your side and hopefully that history proves your commitment, experience and expertise. Those are a lot of attributes to work with. The key is to use them carefully.
If you don’t want to take a direct approach in response to what you are being challenged on because you are concerned, probably quite rightly, that it will play straight into the hands of those throwing stones, here are four oblique but highly effective ways to minimize the effectiveness of the insurgent.
1. Counter-offer rather than counter-attack – In the short term, go to market with a great offer that simply makes choosing you so much more attractive. In the longer term, take the opportunity to discreetly re-shape your positioning so that you are less vulnerable to the position that the challenger is taking. Be careful in both cases not to make what you are doing appear as a response to what the challenger is claiming or a competitive strike.
2. Congratulate your customers – Mount a charm offensive. Be humble and grateful. Acknowledge. Remind the market just how popular you are as the leader and what that means in terms of what you deliver every day. Position this as a key benefit for your customers that the challenger brand will simply be unable to match. This approach is an excellent way to first recognize and then galvanize those who continue to be loyal to you. It’s also a quiet but effective way of using the pressures of scale and footprint to remind your distributors of why they should continue to prioritize you and not chase the sector’s latest bright shiny object.
I love this observation by Jay Deragon about the Social Learning Curve: “All things social are creating a herd of copycats following practices, methods and behavior created by the frenzy of learning something new…”
To what end? is the inevitable question.
Once learned, something is no longer new. In fact, it retains distinctive value only while the numbers of people who have access to that knowledge remains small. And yet, thanks to all things social, the chances of that happening are becoming less and less. And the pressures to democratize what one knows are also increasing.
So everyone feels a pressure to learn, and many brands feel a pressure to share, but once accessed by many people, learning retains diminishing competitive advantage. It quite literally devolves to common knowledge. It becomes how ‘everyone’ does things, what ‘everyone’ agrees on, the way ‘everyone’ sees the world. Soon, what was new is basis.
The tipping point for example. Once breakthrough. Now mainstream.
I happen to really like Collins’ book ‘Good to Great’, but if you believe that by reading it today somehow you will emerge with an understanding that presents you with a clear competitive advantage, you couldn’t be more wrong. Why? Simply because everyone you’re competing against has read it too. And between those readings, the reviews, the lectures and assignments at every business school across the world, and the many subsequent discussions, all the learnings are now widely circulated and applied. There is no secret to be had. ‘Hedgehogs’ are now relatively commonplace.
That dynamic impacts so many brands in the knowledge business in three ways:
The aspiration drive that has dominated how marketers think and what they strive to achieve in building a brand’s mythology is increasingly being seen by consumers as unattainable and fake. Buyers are drawing a line under what they perceive to be airbrushed brands. And the push-back is manifest in everything from the acceptance of imperfect food to the increased use of plus-size models on fashion house runways.
The success of the Dove campaigns and brands like Aerie point to just how aware female consumers are of what they see as ridiculous perfectionism. Buyers’ response – to endorse and buy brands that portray women in a (more) realistic way. This trend, powered initially by millennials but gaining wider market acceptance, points to a clear opportunity to introduce a refreshing reality. Among the findings in a 2014 JWT study, people increasingly value things that aren’t machine-made, they find beauty in people’s flaws and they believe those flaws make them authentic.
As Brad Hanna observed, “Mega brands that pump out product on a mass production line feel over-engineered and over-processed…Imperfections are the next chapter in the transparency movement brands must adhere to in order to connect with their consumers and establish trust and credibility…Honesty has become the new standard, whether actual honesty or simply perceived honesty.”
If you’re an editor or a retoucher, don’t panic. There’s no suggestion that consumers want everything en flagrante. But what they do seem to be saying, and what brands must increasingly get their heads around, is that they don’t want more wallpaper, more stock images, more idealistic cameos or clichéd close-ups. They want characters that are human, products that feel more individualized and messages that speak more directly and more honestly. I agree with Kelli Law, that “The days of hyper-polished singular messages are giving way to brands that understand the importance of showing their rough edges to lend humanity to their company.”
In a recent address at Cannes, Monica Lewinsky made a plea for brands to play a more direct role in building a compassionate society: one where the power of social media to generate shame and humiliation (and gain money by doing so) was eschewed in favor of an environment that collectively supported and inspired individuals and their actions.
“Building a more compassionate society is going to be a bilateral exercise between individuals and the brands that represent their aspirations, their values and their truths,” said Lewinsky. “People make brands. If people are compassionate, brands will be compassionate in return.”
It’s a nice idea and not a new one. As I recall, Scott Bedbury talked about it in his book “A New Brand World” almost 15 years ago. Part of the difficulty it seems to me is that, like all terms, compassion means different things to different people. Compassion may be defined in terms like care, kindness and humanity, but those principles can be expressed in very different ways and through many and varied actions. Many would see compassion as it pertains to commerce as being ethically focused: issues like traceability, supply chain ethics, environmental impact and the like. Others may see compassion more in terms of community involvement – and therefore corporate philanthropy, sponsorship or grass-roots support. Lewinsky’s specific focus in her address was the need for brands to behave and endorse responsibly on social media.
So how do you build a compassionate brand and what role should a brand set for itself in so doing?
It’s at this point that I draw a distinction between purpose and ambition. Purpose, I believe, is about the greatest goal you have for your business and for your employees. Ambition focuses on the global impact you will have as a brand, or a collection of brands, and why you have chosen to make it your business to pursue such a goal. It’s about using your place in the world to change the world and therefore to embrace or address the ‘universal’ issues that affect your brands.