By Glenn Busby, President & Partner, SPG Management Consulting
More and more these days, when I talk with clients large and small, with senior marketers and agency leaders, or when I read the latest articles, there seems to be a growing belief that the world of marketing, advertising, branding, and consumers has changed so fundamentally and irrevocably that no thinking over one year old is valid any more. In some cases, very senior folks seem to be advocating not “thinking” at all: witness the provocative musings of Kevin Roberts, CEO of Saatchi & Saatchi Worldwide that “Strategy is dead. Marketing is dead. The big idea is dead. Management is dead.” Putting aside the odd spectacle of the leader of one of the largest strategy/marketing/big idea shops in the world suggesting that what his company does is kaput, (should his clients cease paying?) the underlying thought is both distressing, and, in my opinion, wrong and even harmful.
I’m no “marketing luddite”. I’m well aware of the decline of classic mass media due to fragmentation and on-demand technology. I recognize that first the internet and more recently social media have fundamentally altered how people communicate, plan and make purchases, and how they interact with each other, brands and companies. Globalization, increased multiculturalism, increased retailer power, the rise of private label, the shrinking of many categories’ mid-tiers, or more broadly the shrinking of the economic middle class: get it! The question is not whether changes in the marketplace, however big, are real and whether they should affect how we think, plan, and go to market, but rather, whether these changes mean that everything we were taught as strategists and marketers is now irrelevant? Clearly many people do believe this. I, however, emphatically do not.
The 19th century French writer Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr famously said that “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.” (“The more things change, the more they stay the same.”) For today’s marketers, I’d like to offer a corollary to Karr’s rule: the more things change, the more the fundamentals matter, and the more you should rely on them. So, let’s look at some of these fundamentals and see how they are still relevant:
“Marketing is dead” is the most extreme articulation of a basic idea: that the power has shifted so dramatically to retailers (size, scale, concentration, access to the consumer) and the consumer (wealth of information, social media, media clutter) that we can no longer “market” to consumers. At best, we can “engage in a conversation” with consumers, the assumption being that really companies are more the passive recipients of information, rather than the one-way senders we used to be. This view is wrong. Marketing was never about a one-way conversation and it was never about a particular media tactic, even one as prevalent as the 0:30 second TV spot. I believe marketing, at its essence, is the discipline of (a) truly understanding deep-seated consumer needs; (b) aligning an organization’s resources to produce products or services that uniquely and better meet those needs; and (c) engaging the consumer in a dialogue about how your brand and what it offers can meet their needs. The need to do this hard work is as prevalent today as it was at the advent of classic brand management and marketing in the 1950s.
You often hear the argument that the world is moving too fast; things are changing too quickly; that ideas are obsolete before they are even articulated. This thinking is then used to justify why we should not focus energy on developing a strategy, but rather why we should focus on executing multiple tactics (i.e. throw it all at the wall and see what sticks!) This view is not only naïve, it is actually reckless. In turbulent or fast-moving times, the importance of having a clear, crisp, and actionable strategy, aligned and bought into throughout an organization, is even more important. The problem is that people believe that strategy is static, constricting, or painful to arrive at. It is a discipline that many would prefer to avoid – they prefer to have a high bias for action: ready, fire, ready fire, ready fire…..who needs to aim? Unfortunately, companies often come to regret such an approach: they fail, and they don’t even know why. Good strategy is not inherently static, constricting or painful. Done well, strategy is the discipline that keeps a company moving towards its goals in the most turbulent times. It is the anchor that the entire team rallies around. It is the tool that helps us say “no” to the wrong activities and “more” to the right ones. A good strategy is robust and long-lasting – action plans and tactics change.
Again here, there is a belief that the world has changed. The thought is that in the past, companies defined what their brands stood for. Now, in the social media world, brand equity is solely defined by the consumer and that the company must “surrender” control. This is a fallacy. First of all, there was never a time where the consumer was the receiver of a fully and finally articulated brand equity. By definition, your brand’s equity is the sum of what your target consumers or customers believe it to be. Equally important, even today, the company plays the crucial role in shaping and defining what its brand is about. How you design and price and deliver your product or service; how you interact with customers or consumers; how you answer the phone and how you advertise – these are all cues to the consumer as to what your brand is about. Certainly they filter it through their personal experience and biases, but they have to have something to filter.
So where does that leave us. For me, it says that we need to appropriately use the classic tools and thinking. Clearly our approaches and tactics have to adapt. They aren’t selling a lot of buggy whips via newspaper advertising these days. On the other hand, structured thinking never goes out of style.
Here are the key elements of brand strategy that, for me, remain crucially applicable (recognizing that 100 marketers would call these elements100 different things – let’s not quibble):
a) Target Consumer
Who is the “bulls-eye” target? This is not “anyone with a pulse and a chequebook”, nor is it “women 18-49 with kids”. Who is the sub-set of the population who will represent 80% of your consumers? What is unique about them, demographically and psychographically? Who are they? What do they believe? How do they behave? What are the hidden insights – emotional and otherwise – that drive them? It is crucial that you resist the temptation to go too broad, to keep as many potential consumers in the target. Even the biggest brands, if successful and lasting, speak to a core consumer – the true brand lover – even if other consumers happen to buy the product. Most great brands are at least somewhat polarizing. You love them or you don’t. You are “in the club” or you are not. This evokes passion, which drives loyalty, which is the path to sales and profitability. Brands which target everyone tend to inflame the passion of no one.
b) Brand Promise
At the core, what do you offer to your target consumer? What are you all about? Why should they not only buy and use your product or service, but why should they love it? Recommend it? Stay loyal to it through thick and thin? There are 3 key elements which together form a good brand promise:
i) Brand Benefits – These are what your brand gives to its target consumer: at both the functional and emotional level. All great brands offer both – consistently and on at least some of them, better than competitive offerings. Do not be fooled into believing that your brand is entirely about emotional benefits – the product or service has to “do” something. Equally, do not ignore the emotional resonance possible from very functional, tangible offerings. A brand must offer both types of benefits – it need not, however, communicate all of them. Nike, Apple, lots of famous examples concentrate their communication very heavily on the emotional benefit level, but make no mistake, these products offer clear, superior, differentiated functional benefits.
ii) Brand Differentiator(s) – To win, a brand must offer some clear point of differentiation, and this point of difference must be relevant and observable to the target consumer. Brands that offer no differentiation cannot command premium pricing, and they ultimately do not command consumer loyalty. What will your brand be about and do that is different and better than all of its competitors and that is highly relevant to your target consumer?
iii) Brand Essence – What is the simple idea / phrase / snapshot which articulates the core idea of your brand. This will be the distillation of the benefits and differentiators, and potentially of the brand character as well. Why do you need to get to this level of clarity? In a cluttered world, clear thinking and clear communication will win the day.
c) Brand Character
Being clear on character (sometimes referred to as brand personality) is crucial in crafting the brand’s message and also in reviewing and selecting from executional options for packaging, advertising, etc. Character is a potential key point of differentiation as well. Ultimately, what you are looking for is part personality, part “voice” and part tone & manner. It is crucial to avoid “plain vanilla” character words (e.g. caring, loving, modern, etc.) which could apply to any brand in any category. Instead, look for a character which is driven by insight into your target consumer and which comes directly from your brand’s essence. Make it unique and even somewhat polarizing – you want your brand to stand out in a cluttered market – but polarize in a way that is positive and which speaks to your target consumer.
Why bother will these classic brand strategy disciplines? In a fast-paced and changing world, with fragmented media speaking to empowered consumers, it is more important than ever to be clear, focused, and disciplined in everything we do. The brands and companies that leverage these disciplines win in the marketplace, short and long-ter. You want your brand to be on the winners list, not on the list of “also-rans”. Consider your own brand(s), products or services. Are you clear on target consumer, brand promise, brand character? If not, do the hard work to get clear. Your bottom line will thank you.
© Glenn Busby – 2012