A while back, I talked to Chris Stutzman, VP, Principal Analyst of the CMO Practice for Marketers and Agencies at Forrester. The company had conducted a survey about how engagement with brands might be changing, and Chris wanted to gather opinions on what the findings meant for the future of brands.
Chris proposed that branding is the ongoing quest for relevance. He suggested that the classic model of branding involved marketing activity to create equity and drive willingness to buy, pay a premium or buy more, i.e. buy a new line extension. Chris suggested that in the classic model of marketing, equity is a function of relevance, differentiation, credibility and projected leadership (he spoke mostly about share of mind). He then suggested that Forrester’s research had identified a new need, one I would describe as the need to “level up” in gaming parlance. Chris suggested consumers are holding brands to a higher standard today. With lots of good quality brands and plenty of copycats, people are spoilt for choice. So brands need to create demand based on additional factors. He identified four:
1. Societal contribution, e.g. as detailed in Jim Stengel’s Grow.
2. Pride, e.g. not just a signal of status, but the feelings enjoyed by the user. For example, one person I spoke to recently told me that they feel “righteous” when they drive their Toyota Prius.
3. Special experience, e.g. Amex or Red Bull hosting exclusive events for customers and consumers
4. Indispensable value, e.g. enhancing the value of the offering to a “must have”. (He did not give an example, but I would assume that the Apple ecosystem of iPod + iTunes would fit)
You can read more about Chris’s viewpoint here. Subsequent to our conversation, a few more thoughts occurred to me as I discussed these ideas with colleagues:
- Are there only four basic ways to level up? Surely there must be more? My colleague, Phil Herr, suggests that some brands exhibit cultural empathy, and cites Pabst Blue Ribbon beer as a brand that has found favor among bicycle messengers because it “gets” them.
- These all seem like premium brand strategies. Is there a countervailing trend that says, “All brands are the same, I’m smart and I’ll buy the cheapest”? Phil suggests the same strategies do apply to value brands like Pabst Blue Ribbon, but are pursued less often.
- Last but not least, James Galpin rightly pointed out that these strategies are in fact not new. He notes that John Lewis, Co-op and Quaker, all built brands based on a societal contribution, and that Amex has been sponsoring tennis at Queens in London and giving free tickets out to card holders (usually via a competition) for the last 20 odd years.
I suspect that James is right. These brand strategies are not new. They tap into basic human motivations and have been used by savvy marketers for decades. I suspect the reason we see more efforts to “level up” is less to do with the consumer (they have always valued things that are meaningful) and more to do with the world of business and marketing. With over supply in many categories and fast followers everywhere, then functional differentiation is no longer sustainable. You have to take it to the next level to ensure that your brand stands out from the crowd.
So what do you think? Are these brand strategies new? And what other brand strategies might marketers employ in order to “level up.” Please share your thoughts.
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