A competitive brand strategy finds a space in the marketplace that your brand can win over and own. You must decided if you will position your brand to be better, different, or cheaper. Otherwise, your brand will not be around for very long. A competitive brand position matches up what consumers want with what your brand does best, that is better than your competitors. We will look at four types of competitive brand strategy situations: power player, challenger brand, island brand or the rebel brand. Most importantly, you need to make sure you align with the right competitive situation.
Finding your space to win
To find the competitive space in which your brand can win, I introduce the Venn diagram of competitive situations. Looking below, the first circle should list out everything the consumer wants.
The second circle then lists everything your brand does best. And, finally, the third circle lists everything your competitor does best.
To find your brand’s winning zone, you should match up what consumers want with what your brand does best. This provides you a distinct space that you can own and defend from attack. To maintain ownership over that space, your brand should always be able to satisfy the needs of the consumer better than anyone else can.
Your brand will not survive in the losing zone, which is the space that matches up the consumer needs with the area where your competitor does it better than your brand. It is dangerous to try to play in this space, because over the long term, your competitor will beat you.
Brands can win the risky zone
As markets mature, competitors copy each other. It becomes harder to be better with a definitive product win, and that leaves you to play in the risky zone, which is the space where you and your competitor both meet the consumer’s needs in a relative tie. The tie is important to understand, because brands can still win the tie when they make their brand seem different enough that consumers perceive their brand to be better. Perception becomes reality. The four ways to win the risky zone is to leverage your brand’s power in the market to squeeze out lesser brands, or to be the first to capture and defend the space, or to win with innovation and creativity, or find ways to build a deeper emotional connection.
Sadly, I do have to always mention the dumb zone where two competitors “battle it out” in the space where consumers do not care. One competitor says, “We are faster” and the other thinks, “We are just as fast”. A competitive war starts up, yet no one bothered to ask the consumer if they care.
In brand management, we never experience pure isolation. Even in a blue ocean situation, the euphoria of being alone quickly turns to a red ocean that is cluttered with the blood from nasty battling competitors. The moment we think we are alone, a competitor is watching and believes they can do it better than we can. To win the competitive battle, you have to find a unique selling proposition for your brand that distinguishes you from others. If you ignore the competition, with a belief that only the consumer matters, you are on a naive pathway to losing. Competitors force us to sharpen our focus and tighten our language on the brand positioning we will project to the market.
In terms of marketing war games, I will use this Venn diagram to map out four types of competitive brands: power players, challenger brands, island brands, and rebel brands. The final situation, where brands have no clue where they stand competitively, I call the cluttered brands. They sit in the cluttered space, lost, disconnected with consumers and in total decline.
Power Players lead the way, as the share leader or perceived influential leader of the category. These brands command a power over all the stakeholders, competitors, and retail partners of the category. In terms of positioning, the power player brands own what they are best at, and they leverage their power in the market to help them own the tie. This expands their presence and power across a bigger market. They leverage the love from a core group of loyal brand lovers to win the tie. These brands can also use their advanced financial situation to invest in innovation to stay ahead of the category.
Power Player brands defend their territory with an attack back at any aggressive competitor or even an attack on itself to close any potential leaks before a competitor notices. These brands require a strong culture to continually get better and stay ahead of the competitors. To stay as the power brand, you can never become complacent or you will die.
Examples of Power Player brands
One of the best Power Player brands is Google, who has managed to dominate the search engine market. Their extreme focus and smart execution gained market power and squeezed out Microsoft and Yahoo. Focused on providing knowledge for consumers, they have continued to expand their services into a bundle of products with e-mail, maps, apps, docs, cloud technology, and cell phones. On the other hand, Blackberry forgot to defend their castle. In 2009, Blackberry dominated the B2B corporate smartphone market. However, they became distracted by the Apple launch and tried to be more like Apple than stay themselves. They launched a bad touch screen phone, an undifferentiated tablet, sponsored rock concerts, and launched Blackberry Messenger (BBM) for young teens. These brands never attacked themselves. They left severe product flaws that frustrated their users. Pretty soon, corporations switched to the iPhone.
Challenger brands must change the playing field to attack the leader and exploit a potential weakness or build on their own strength. While you can amplify what your brand does best, it becomes just as important to reposition the power player who you want to take down. The best way is to turn their well-known strength into a perceived weakness that moves them outside of what consumers want. While your first instinct would be to attack the power player’s weakness, the smarter move is to reposition one of the power player’s strengths into a perfective weakness.
When you attack a power player brand, be careful of the leader’s potential defensive moves. Anticipate a response with full force—possibly with even greater resources than yours. Avoid battles that drain your brand’s limited resources or else you will spend a fortune only to end up with the same share after the war. Focus on consumers who are less vested in the leader’s brand to help kick-start a momentum away from the leader. As the leader tries to be everything to everyone, you should drive a narrow attack that slices off the most vulnerable part of its business before it can defend it.
Examples of challenger brands
Apple’s “I’m a Mac” campaign defined the Mac brand as simple, confident, and cool, while re-defining the PC as old, uptight, and awkward. Apple repositioned PC’s strength as an intelligent computer and turned it into a weakness that was perceived as complicated, frustrating, and incapable. The ads layered in new ways that Mac was easier, while they highlighted all the problems with the PC that included hardware issues, software problems, and insufficient applications.
One of the best examples of a challenger brand that made significant gains is Pepsi, who launched the Pepsi Challenge in the 1970s as a direct offensive attack on Coke. Taste was one of Coke’s perceived strengths, but the ad implied that Coke’s taste was actually an acquired and memorable taste, not a sweet, superior taste. In the blind taste test, without the Coke brand name visible to consumers, they overwhelmingly picked Pepsi, preferring the sweeter taste. At the same time, Pepsi amplified their own strength as the “new generation” that set themselves up as the solution to those ready to reject the old taste of Coke.
Island brands move into the blue ocean area all by themselves, where no one else competes. These brands are so different, that they appear to be relatively on their own. Most Island brands start as game-changers who have responded to an identified niche gap in the main category. They satisfy an unmet consumer need, whether that is a new target, price point, distribution channel, format, or positioning. When successful, the Island brand ends up repositioning the main category players as unattached to the consumers. While everyone wants a game-changer, to be so different brings increased risk that the concept may fail. Also, success may invite other entrants to follow the island brand, which puts the brand in a red ocean position. A red ocean is where your brand becomes the new power player brand who needs to defend your territory with full force.
Example of an Island brand
Volvo is a great example of an island brand. Most car brands have traditionally focused on the horsepower and speed performance of the car, the interior luxury and comfort or the stylish designs, Volvo focused on safety. For Volvo safety is not just a claim or demo in their TV ads, but is everything they do. But the real beauty for Volvo is their obsession with safety. Volvo was long ahead of the marketplace. Volvo first started the safety angle in the 1940s and became completely obsessed in through the 1960s long before consumers cared about safety when no one was even wearing seat belts. But the market place has since caught up.
This year, Car and Driver reports safety as the #1 benefit that consumers are looking for in a new car. Most recently, Volvo has come up with a very ambitious vision statement for the brand: “No one should every die or be seriously injured in a Volvo.”
Rebel brands go against the entire category, into an area too small for the leaders to even take notice or attack back. Rebels pick a segment or target market that is small enough not be noticed that they can easily defend. They take an antagonistic approach to the rest of the category. They portray every other brand in the category as old school, flawed, corrupt, overly corporate, or even stupid. Rebel brands believe that it is better to be loved by the few than liked or tolerated by many.
Growth of the tail
In today’s economy, every category has seen the growth of craft-type brands that satisfy a small segment. As consumers have taken over the buying process, they look for brands that speak directly with them. A typical store that had three to four main coffee brands now carries fifteen to twenty coffee brands. Rebel brands must speak directly with a small group of consumers and own a small enough niche away from competitors. A great strategy is to focus on a niche of consumers who are frustrated by the market leaders.
These brands lead with purpose, they create a deep emotional bond, and try to be seen as “anti-corporate”. Their intention is to be aggressive. They put all the brand’s resources against their small target to gain the perceived relative force of a major player. These brands have to be nimble and quick to seize the opportunity before others notice. They are ready to exit if consumers shift their needs or the major competitors enter. Rebel brands explore non-traditional marketing techniques such as creative names or media options that fit the niche target market.
Examples of Rebel brands
A great example of a Rebel brand is Five Guys Burgers who successfully avoided big fast food chains. While fast food feels frozen and microwaved, Five Guys has gone the opposite direction with high quality and fresh ingredients. They offer larger portions at a super premium price ($8-$10 for a burger). They promise not to start cooking your hamburger until it is ordered. Five Guys have expanded rapidly with word of mouth helping to spread their reputation as “the best burger”. Since then, Five Guys has become a global brand, McDonald’s has yet to generate an adequate competitive response.
Another great example is Dollar Shave who launched as an online subscription model for razor blades. With a $3 billion dollar shaving market dominated by two players, the price of razor blades grew out of control. With only $30 million in the first year, they were too small for Gillette to even bother with. However, without a response, Dollar Shave continued to grow year-by-year. Unilever recently purchased the Dollar Shave brand for $1 billion.
A cluttered brand has no clue where they stand competitively. These brands are stuck in a cluttered mess. There is no clear target market or clear point of difference. These brands lack a loyal base of consumers and are unable to generate any positive growth or price premiums. They end up an indifferent commodity, disconnected from consumer needs. Without sales growth or profits, they struggle to invest back into their brand, which further accelerates the path of decay.
Examples of cluttered brands are General Motors, Burger King, and Sears, all of whom lack any clear brand positioning. The way to break this vicious downward spiral is to start over and follow the strategy of the rebel brand. Try to own a small niche and build around a unique brand positioning to a smaller motivated target.
Strategic Thinking Workshop
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