You have to find a unique selling proposition for your brand, that distinguishes you from others. Looking above at the Venn diagram, we first start by listing out everything your consumers want, then list what your brand does best and what your competitors do best. The winning zone for your brand to play in is the match up where consumers want what you do best. The losing zone is to play where consumers want it, but your competitor does it better than you. As we are maturing in the marketing, it is harder and harder to come up with a definitive win, so that is where you can win the risky zone by being different, being faster to market, winning with meaningful innovation or building a deep emotional connection. The key to be seen as unique, not just for the sake of it, but to match up what you do best with what the consumer is looking for. Sadly, I do have to always mention the dumb zone. This is where two competitors “battle it out” in the zone the consumer does not care about. I say sadly, because I keep seeing this in the market. One competitor starts saying “we are faster” and you see them so you think “well we are just as fast”. No one bothers to ask the consumer if they care about speed. Too often, Brand Leaders start with the claim, and then try to make the most of it in everything they do. The problem with that strategy is your claim might not be a benefit, and even if it ladders up, it might not be something that is own-able for you or motivating to the consumer.
When you position your brand you want to focus on the area where you are better than your competitor and then use communication, innovation and experience to extrapolate that benefit’s importance, while then diminishing what your competitor does best.
Where you rank and what role you play within your category is a great indicator of how much power you can command in the market. In terms of Marketing War Games, we have mapped out 4 types of competitive brands: the Power Player, the Challenger, the Island brand, the Rebel Brand. If you do not fit into one of those four, by default you become the Battler Brand where you are in a constant dog-fight in, stuck in the middle of the pack, unable to command any point of difference.
The Power Player leads the way: This is reserved for the leader of the category. These brands have a power over the category and over competitors. They can defend their territory by attacking itself or even attacking back at an aggressive competitor. The Power Player is usually the market share leader but it can also be the perceived leader in the consumers’ mind. For instance, Apple is the perceived leader of the cell-phone market, even though Samsung has a significantly higher market share. The best strategy is actually to ‘attack yourself’ by identifying and close leaks in service, experience or products before others can take advantage of those leaks. Challenge the culture to step it up to continually get better and stay ahead of the competitors. Always be launching innovation that is better than your current product. Never become complacent or you will die. Keep an eye on your competitor’s moves—and adjust your own brand to ensure you defend against their attacks. Power Players always block all offensive moves and attacks back with an even greater force than the one attacking you. You always need to demonstrate your brand power—whether that is with competitors, retailers, media or even the very consumers who love you.
Power Players own what they are best at, and manage to achieve perceived parity with competitors on their weakness to avoid opening up a new competitive advantage for anyone in the market to attack them. Where there is a tie winners of these brands win on innovation, emotional, speed or taking the product and turning it into an experience.
A great case study of a Power Brand leader facing the attack from a challenger brand, McDonald’s was able to hold their own under attack by Subway’s weight loss claims and the movie “Super Size Me”. They launched a full array of salads & sandwiches, changed their happy meal to appeal to healthy moms, and voluntarily put calorie counts on their menu. For the next 5 years after “Super Size Me” McDonalds saw double-digit growth when everyone thought it was in trouble. On the other hand, Blackberry is a great case study of a brand that forgot to defend their Castle. In 2009, Blackberry dominated the B2B executive market. But they wanted to be more like Apple than like themselves. They launched a bad touch screen phone, an undifferentiated tablet, sponsored rock concerts and launched BBI for teenie-boppers. They never attacked themselves by improving the flaws of their current product or defended their strength with corporations. Pretty soon, executives were switching to the iPhone and Blackberry was headed for a quick fall to near obscurity.
The Challenger Brand tries to change the playing field: Challenger’s attack on the leader to exploit a weakness or build on your own strength. The best offensive attack is to actually find weakness within the leader’s strengths. One very powerful strategy is to turn a perceived strength of the leader around by making it a weakness. Attacking a weakness might be insufficient, because consumers already know it is a weakness. Be careful of the leader’s defensive moves, by anticipating a response with full force—possibly even greater than yours. Avoid wars that drain your limited resources and end up with the same share after the war. Following Napoleonic rules, you need to attack on as narrow of a front as possible to ensure your resources are put to that area—which might be more of a force than the leader puts to that one area. When a leader is trying to be everything, those narrow attacks are effective—enabling you to slice off a part of their business before they can defend it. Where there can be product differences, invest in R&D to achieve a leapfrog strategy where technology and business models become game-changers in the category.
The best example of a Challenger Brand attacking the leader came from the Pepsi Challenge which was a direct offensive attack on Coke. Without the strength of the Coke brand name and all that went with it, people picked Pepsi in blind taste tests, preferring the sweeter taste. Supported by “the taste of a new generation” Pepsi was able to change the playing field away from Coke’s strength of tradition and heritage over to Pepsi’s taste and youth.
The Island Brand goes into the unknown areas: An attack in an open area where the Leader is not that well established. Island Brands go to uncontested areas, in the safety where the leader is not competing. Make sure you are the first in this area. Speed and surprise can help win the uncontested area before the Leaders take notice. Make your move quickly and stealth fully. Follow through matters, to defend the area you’ve won. Be careful that your success on this island may invite others to follow whether it is the leader trying to use their might or copycats looking for an early win. Then you become the Power Player of your island and must defend your territory with full power you have. Island Brands normally win with new targets, price points (premium or value), distribution channels, format or positioning. In the modern world, we are seeing many brands using completely new technologies such as Netflix or Uber to completely change the playing field. The biggest issue for Island Brands is the increased risk that your concept might not work. These are different concepts in a different space, and that brings a higher risk.
Special K Challenge is an amazing example of an Island Brand. As most cereal was targeting families, facing complaints of high sugar and calories, Special K established itself as a lower calorie and weight loss option. Around 2000, Special K made a dramatic turn in the market. With all the diet-crazed consumers looking for new solutions, Special K had a stroke of brilliance when someone figured out that if you ate Special K twice a day for just two weeks, you could lose up to 6 pounds in 2 weeks. While all the other diet options felt daunting, this felt pretty easy to do. At that time, the big idea for Special K was “Empowering Women to take control of their weight”. Special K’s innovation rivaled that of Apple. It started with the launch of Berry Special K that thrust the brand into a good tasting cereal, and has since added bars, shakes and water. Most recently, they’ve now launched potato chips (only 80 calories for 20 chips) and a Breakfast Sandwich option. it just goes to show you that it’s not about ‘out of the box’ ideas, but rather how you define the box. All these product launches are aligned to the idea of empowering women to maintain their weight. The diversified line up beyond cereal helps off-set any sales softness on cereal.
The Rebel Brand goes against the category: Going into an area where it’s too small for the Leaders to take notice or are unable to attack back. Pick a segment small enough that it won’t be noticed and you’ll be able to defend it. Be aggressive. Put all your resources against this small area, so that you’ll have the relative force of a major player. Be flexible and nimble. You will need to enter quickly to seize an opportunity that others aren’t noticing, but also be ready to exit if need be—whether the consumers change their minds or competitors see an opportunity to enter. Explore non-traditional marketing techniques to get your brand message out and your brand into the market quickly. Because you’re playing in a non-traditional market, you’ll be given leeway on the tools you use. For Rebel brands, it is better to be loved by the few, than liked or tolerated by the many. They are at their best when no one even notices or cares.
The Rebel Brands that comes to mind is 5 Guys Burgers. They have avoided taking on the big fast food chains directly, preferring to go into the high quality, fresh ingredients at a super premium price ($8-10 for a burger). They do not worry about calories or salads or even chicken. They are sticking to what they are good at: highest quality burgers. 5 Guys is taking their niche into a high growth situation, with 1000+ locations. The consumers are passionate about the high quality burger. They are stealing the top end of share from McDonald’s but are doing so by owning their niche. While they face other high quality burger joints like In-N-Out or Shake Shack, they are clearly following the McDonald’s real estate strategy by trying to be everywhere.
Dollar Shave has also done a great job as a rebel brand. Dollar Shave Club is a subscription based razor company, founded in 2011 by Mark Levine and Michael Dubin based on the idea that consumers are highly frustrated with the growing cost of razor blades. This is a classic case of finding a major un-addressed problem that consumers are facing in the market, and use a creative brand solution that helps to turn that problem into a consumer enemy that upsets them emotionally. We are seeing many brands use new technology options to set up the old guard as the enemy ready for attack. And this is the strategy for Dollar Shave on Gillette. With the cost of a pack of razors going for $20 at your average drug store or even $40 at Costco, there was a huge opportunity in the marketplace. Yes, we’ve seen huge technology gains in the last 20 years with way more blades than we ever though possible, flex balls and blue lines telling us when to throw it out. But for a great many of us, price still matters. At first Dollar Shave was so small ($25 Million in sales) that Gillette could not be bothered to defend. You can imagine that as Dollar Shave started out, they were up going against one of the biggest consumer goliath brands in the world. Gillette’s global sales are in the billions. For Dollar Shave, first year sales were about $30-50 million, while they likely generated a lot of noise at P&G, that sales level should not even be enough to make Gillette lose an ounce of sleep.
If you are stuck as a Cluttered Brand: Most brands are stuck in a dog-fight in a crowded category where they struggle to find any competitive points of differences they can take advantage of. These brands battle it out using traditional tools such as distribution, price and promotion to try to win, only to discover that without a Big Idea it is just a constant drain on their resources. These Cluttered Brands act like a commodity, trying to out-effort or out-last their competitors. However, if the brand is a commodity, there will be no loyalty, no price premium and no growth. That means no funds coming back to invest back into the brand. These brands need to find an idea that is unique, own-able and motivating to consumers. The only way to get out of this vicious spiral is to become a Rebel Brand and build around a smaller motivated target by something you can build around or find a game-changing option to become an Island Brand.
Lessons for Marketing War Games
When engaged in marketing war games, here are things you need to do to win:
- You have to realize that speed of attack matters. Surprise attacks, but sustained speed in the market is a competitive advantage.
- Be organized and efficient in your management. To operate at a higher degree of speed, ensure that surprise attacks work without flaw, be mobile enough.
- Focus all your resources to appear bigger and stronger than you are. Focus on the target most likely to quickly act, focus on the messaging most likely to motivate and focus on areas you can win.
- Drawn out dogfights slow down brand growth. Never fight two wars at once.
- Use early wins to keep momentum going and gain quick positional power you can maintain and defend counter-attacks.
- Execution matters. Quick breakthrough requires creativity in your approach and quality in execution. Expect the unexpected.
- Think it through thoroughly. Map out potential responses by competitors.
What is your competitive position for your brand and are your strategies lined up to your role?
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