Short answer – yes it is, but not in the way it was.
I haven’t met a brand manager yet who didn’t tell me that they had a differentiated product. I’m not surprised. It’s part of the job description of any brand owner to be marketing something that is disruptive, market-changing, blue-ocean, category-killing…15 years on from when I first suggested “parity is the real pariah”, every brand’s still talking up difference – but consumers are increasingly hard pressed to see any.
In some ways, marketers only have themselves to blame. Enthused by the need to be so very different from everyone else, marketers seem to have searched, then compromised and finally settled for nit-picking their way to a self-appointed category-of-one. Is it time to call time? Perhaps if more brands admitted that the chances of them redefining the universe at a product or service level were nil, they could focus more on the things that do matter.
We’ve been drawn into the innovation myth – the belief that brands can invent their way to market dominance. Most brands will never do that. At best, “innovation” (which would better be described across the majority of the market as improvement) will keep them on a par with those around them. At worst, it will lure them into risking massive resources for a difference they will never make.
So let’s talk about a shift of focus: from big picture, broad brush disruptive market plays to a new era of personalized, specific, individualized small plays. In the new world of the quantified self and the emerging Internet Of Everything, brand differentiation today is really about what a brand does for “me” not how it revolutionizes whole swathes of a sector.
Your word is your brand. Or rather, if the words aren’t right and your consumers depend on them for vital information, your brand will quickly find itself in the crosshairs of regulators, activist groups and annoyed consumers. The recent case concerning the contents of herbal supplements is more than an argument over percentages; at its core lies a simple question that underpins consumer trust.
Does it do/have what it says on the box?
You can see this as a labeling issue – particularly where food is concerned. Even that soon evolves into an argument about detail, consumer knowledge and mandatory disclosure. It doesn’t change the fact though that consumers expect to get what they pay for and there are brands that continue, wittingly or unwittingly, to short-change them. The halo effect of these actions carries through to everyone else in the sector.
As Walker Smith observed last year in this piece on Branding Strategy Insider, “Trust is a third rail for every kind of business or brand. It is an intangible requisite for staying in business of which companies dare not speak. As soon as you ask for it, you lose it. If trust cannot be taken for granted in the everyday course of business, if trust is not beyond question, then customers immediately jump to the conclusion that something is out of sorts.”
I suspect that, for some, the reason “something is out of sorts” is because two very simple words are being confused: earn; and earnings. In the bid to tell the market what they are making revenue-wise, brands sometimes overlook what they should be building reputation-wise. To earn takes time, effort, integrity and the willingness to forge. Earnings are now, today, what it says on the press release. Central to this is the ongoing tension, identified by Steve Denning in this article, between the “real market” (the world of real transactions) and the expectations market (the world in which investors form and articulate expectations of how companies should perform).
Which leads to a dilemma that to my mind remains unresolved. Whose trust should brands value most – the trust of the consumer; or the trust of the market?
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.
Recently both Jeff Swystun and Mark Ritson took aim at the brand industry with characteristic frankness. While applauding the advances in turning brand into a recognized commercial activity, Swystun believes that an industry developed to fight commoditization has itself succumbed to that market pressure. It has, he says, become “…highly stylized, shiny, and cool but largely standardized, prescribed and frequently devoid of substantiated benefit.” Everyone is being different in exactly the same way. Brand is today’s shiny metal object.
Too many brands are, in effect, going through the motions. “Branding is now a factory. An assembly line. Consultants make money in repeatable, familiar processes. Methodologies equal margin. What spits off the end of that assembly line is all too similar.” Ubiquity has generated complacency, giving way to methodologies that are more focused on going through process for process’s sake than arriving at anything fresh and startling. In the end, they are producing brands that are, quite literally, shelf fillers.
As a result, what was once brand strategy is now brand paperwork.
That’s the risk with any system of course. As the process becomes embedded, it assumes a life, and a righteousness, of its own. Complete the steps and the process is done, and if the process is done, then the answer has to be right. We’ve lost some things through that process I believe. Human insights have given way to broad and pleasant generalizations. Values have become shopping lists. And the sparseness and discipline of pared back thinking has given way to documents that are long on charts and discourse but short on breath-taking difference.
Mark Ritson holds nothing back. “The great paradox of corporate branding is that the more words you use, the less traction any of it has with behaviors and brand equity. Every Tom, Dick and useless Harry from the world of brand consulting tries to sell companies a ‘brand purpose’, with ‘brand values’ allayed with ‘brand attributes’ and other associated horseshit arranged inside concentric circles because a) they don’t know any better and b) they’re getting paid by the yard.”
As marketers we take brand promises for granted. We just accept that every brand in its right mind has one and that it is committed to keeping it. As consumers, we have no such awareness. We don’t wander around with the strategies of our favorite brands on our devices checking that, wherever we see them, they are doing what they said they would do in the strategy.
In fact, ask any consumer to articulate the promise of even their favorite brand and all will struggle. What does Google promise? I don’t know exactly. What is the exact wording of the Moleskine promise? I have no idea. I think Starbucks promises me great coffee, but again I haven’t seen the playbook.
And I never will as a consumer. And neither will you.
What we do have are impressions – perceptions accumulated from all our encounters with a brand that tell us what we think we can expect. In all likelihood we subconsciously interpret those as a promise. Even then, expectation is not one thing. It’s extrapolated from a series of signals that are summed up neatly by Scott Smith as seven expectation types:
- Explicit expectations – the things brands say that consumers will get. The expectation from consumers is that the brand will do what it says on the box.
- Implicit expectations – the expectations around comparison and therefore what consumers infer they can expect from one brand or another.
- Static performance expectations – the defined expectations around performance and quality in a specific situation or for a specific application.
- Dynamic performance expectations – the changing expectations for a product or service over time. These are consumers’ adaption expectations. We expect the things we buy to keep up.
- Technological expectations – how consumers expect the technology that powers what they buy to evolve, introducing new features and enabling new capabilities. These expectations are closely linked to how prepared consumers feel for the world around them.
- Interpersonal expectations – the level and nature of relationship that consumers have with a brand. Interpersonal of course now includes high elements of automation and self service that add new complications in terms of lifting transactions beyond functionary.
- Situational expectations – what consumers expect to happen in a specific situation and whether the experience lived up to, exceeded or failed that expectation.
Let me break these down into four categories of expectations and relate them to brand promise: