In the turmoil of the 21st century marketplace, the 20th century brand toolkit is starting to look as useful as a fax machine on a space station. Is it time for a new set of brand management tools and rules?
In the early 80s, Jack Trout and Al Ries gave us a simple, common sense approach to brand positioning. It was perfectly suited to the brand landscape of the time. It prioritized the competitive set over the customer base, in that its frame of reference was always other brands. It was always about figuring out how to wedge yourself into a part of the customer’s brain that was not yet occupied by any of your competitors.
It was a product-driven approach designed to operate in a much simpler media landscape and a more limited number of communication channels. Balance sheets were geared towards top-line growth and completely focused on customer acquisition. (Loyalty didn’t matter too much in a volume-driven marketplace). The focus in marketing was on messaging; customer experience wasn’t on anyone’s radar. Marketing communications were therefore a one-way street, where brands were doing all the talking and customers could only listen.
It was based on the assumption that the conditions of late capitalism would not significantly change. It did not anticipate the technological and economic disruptions that were about to happen. Its weakness was that it was perfectly designed for a mature industrial economy, not an emerging networked economy. So it was like giving marketers a knife to take to a gun fight.
Thirty years later, we are in a networked economy characterized by constant technological disruption, channel proliferation and fragmentation, over-populated categories and far fewer opportunities for differentiation. Far more technologically enabled and influential customers operating in much more intensely competitive categories are forcing a shift from customer acquisition to customer retention and from message to experience. They do not want to listen to brands; they want brands to listen to them. They want brands to back up their promises with action.
Jaded attitudes towards branding and advertising have resulted in lack of trust and the sharing of brand control with customers across social channels. In these conditions, traditional market research is at a loss; customers no longer want to be lab rats in front of a two-way mirror. They want a hand in making your brand. In this model, your customer is far more important than your competitor, and far more involved in brand-building.
Brand-building used to be about advertising and media. Now, it’s about experience, interaction, engagement, and response. In today’s brand-building, customer relationships are the platform and customer experience is the lumber. Post-industrial branding is still about occupying a unique territory on the competitive landscape, but you reach it through an intimate understanding of your customer’s unmet and unarticulated needs and by crafting a differentiated experience to match them.
So, herewith, blazingtuque‘s 6-point agenda for change:
RE-HUMANIZE The practice of branding has for too long been focused on products, not on people. Putting people at the center of a brand means starting with human realities, not marketing fantasies or competitive look-alikes. Put real people at the centre of the branding process for authentic insights that lead to unique opportunities for brand experiences that can be almost impossible for competitors to duplicate. (think Zappos)
UN-POSITION Amidst a sea of sameness, brands are still getting lost in the minutiae of indistinguishable features and continuing to claim implausible emotional benefits stemming from these. In a market where customers have far greater influence and endless products that are “good enough”, smart brands are more concerned with how they fit into people’s lives and culture than where they fit in the competitive landscape. (think Method)
RE-RESEARCH Market research methods have grown tired and predictable. The effectiveness of the standard focus group is greatly diminished and increasingly anachronistic in a world of 24/7, real-time feedback via social channels. Surveys are great for making executives comfortable but are devoid of insight. As Roger Martin has said, data is no substitute for people. Today, insights require the listening and interpretative skills of the social anthropologist. Ethnography accesses the unmet and unarticulated needs that traditional market research misses. (think Campbell’s Go Soup)
EX-CATEGORIZE Why compete against the other million brands in your category? What nano-niche of positioning space is there left? Don’t compete with them. Compete with the whole category by creating a new one. (think iPad)
RE-WRITE The language of brand strategy has become completely commoditized. Brand attributes are selected from the same list of overused, generic terms that everyone in the business has access to. Imagine every book on the shelf in your library was written with the same 100-word vocabulary, and that describes most of what passes for brand strategy today. Finding the right language to articulate a brand strategy should be just as hard as writing poetry. It’s not supposed to be easy. (think The Brand Gap)
UN-REPLICATE You still have to be different. You still have to resist the temptation to ‘do the same thing only better’, which is what most brands try to do, and how most position themselves. And it usually amounts to a mere cosmetic difference. Meaningful differentiation is experiential. If you want to achieve meaningful differentiation, start with a real human need and work from there. Don’t be a solution looking for a problem that’s already been solved by a hundred others – and may not even be a problem that customers want solved. (think Airbnb)
Ready to rock? wn
This article originally appeared in the Spring 2014 issue of MISC Magazine. MISC is published quarterly by Idea Couture and is distributed in 28 countries around the world.
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