Posts tagged "brand messaging"

Brand purchase funnel no longer relevant

Marketing Funnel Flipped on its Head

May 17th, 2024 Posted by brand marketing, brand messaging, brand strategy, branded content, engagement, Insight, Strategic Planning, Uncategorized 0 comments on “Marketing Funnel Flipped on its Head”

New direction on the evolving role of brand marketing

For the last 50 years CPG and retail brand building has been focused on chasing awareness. The theory that top-of-funnel recognition will lead to consideration, and if the brand is persuasive while spiraling further down the funnel, a consumer purchase will occur. Leave it to the impact of evolving culture and the presence of existential, environmental threats to shift behaviors and push the funnel off its pedestal. A distinctive new path to brand building has emerged and we will unpack it here. The good news: we are entering a period of unprecedented brand engagement, but the rules to success are decidedly different.

Remarkably the century old thinking that underpins the funnel was first developed in 1896 by E. St. Elmo Lewis, owner of a Philadelphia-based ad agency, who published the first theory on “consumer path to purchase” he called AIDA – short for Awareness, Interest, Desire and Action. By 1924 this concept had morphed into what we now refer to as the Purchase Funnel. Yes, there have been a few modifications along the way to accommodate digital and social media channels, but the basic view of awareness as the golden goal has traveled with the adjustments, until now.

The funnel is dead, long live the funnel…

The fundamental weaknesses of the funnel model have been exposed, as follows:

  • It is grounded in transactional thinking that positions consumers as walking wallets
  • It fails to address the dynamics of how real brand relationships are built
  • Assumes that consumers will behave in a linear fashion on the road to purchase

It’s fair to say that the focus of brand marketing work and investment has leaned heavily on top of funnel activity, frustrated somewhat by the demise of mass media, the splintering of consumer attention across channels and their uncanny newfound ability to avoid it all. Of note, tactical sophistication here in digital media eyeball aggregation isn’t helped by inherent strategic weakness.

Here’s the truth as we now know it. Consumers – especially Gen Z and Millennials – no longer operate in linear fashion. For one, the purchase isn’t the end game, rather it is the starting point. Consumption is now an infinite loop of inspiration, exploration, community participation and advocacy.

  • Old brand world: defined by conventional advertising, digital or analog
  • New brand world: defined by content, events, experiences and fandom

What are you risking if you continue to be an awareness chaser?

Declining relevance: your brand and business are seen as exploitive, possibly manipulative and transactional.

Lacking authenticity: your brand expresses promotional hype over user help in a world now longing for trust and deeper meaning from the brands consumers care about.

Incidentally, this is why Emergent exists. We focus on new strategic approaches that are grounded in culture and the latest consumer insight. Today, when consumers buy a product, they are actually buying your story and not a stock keeping unit (sku).

Edelman Trust Barometer sheds light on the shift

Edelman’s latest trust report revealed a remarkable change in behavior that has significant implications to sound brand building strategy. People have a strong cognitive bias for post-purchase rationalization. In fact, we also know that 95% of the time, consumers are driven by their efforts to avoid making a bad decision, or to experience disappointment.

Edelman’s research confirms where the action is: 50% of consumers now conduct the vast majority of their brand research AFTER purchase and not before. What’s more, 78% are looking for credible proof and validation that they made the right decision. Turns out post purchase is when people are most open to brand engagement.

You might be wondering what’s behind this change…

  1. The systematic dilution of trust and belief based in part on the absence of any prevailing brand value system, higher purpose or real, obvious evidence of same.
  2. The precipitous rise of vulnerability, uneasiness over a perceived lack of personal control authored by political, social and environmental stresses. 
  3. Too many brands think all they have to do is invoke the word trust in their marketing and they are automatically, well, trusted. Not so. Trust is earned not acquired. Always deeds more than words.

Right below the surface people look for safety and security in the midst of accelerating experiences sponsored by uncontrollable events around them. This manifests as a desire for deeper meaning, purpose and trust – now at an all-time premium. Call it heightened expectations for visible, demonstrable, easy-to-see brand values and a courageous point of view.

So how does it work now?

Consumer pre-purchase research leans into the influence of brand social communities where they uncover member reviews, experiences and hopefully advocacy. Thus, the strongest predictor of a thriving social strategy is the rate at which members connect with each other vs. the brand’s self-promoting posts. It just makes sense – people believe and respect the voices of their peers before they accept assertions claimed by brands.

Brand marketing is now about cultural influence

The great news – consumers in a post-purchase focused world are primed for engagement. No need to wrestle them to the ground with look-at-me overreach. Here’s directional advice on best practices.

  1. Trust creation: you should be conveying and demonstrating your brand purpose, mission and identity beyond the product on offer. Brand actions, reinforced through communication and education, helps you earn trust. 
  2. You’re working to confirm: competence, ethics, values and relevance to your consumer based on their identity and aspirations, which you endeavor to help enable.
  3. You deploy: credible and trusted voices in the form of “people like me” (via User Generated Content), scientists and academic experts, brand tech experts and employees.

It’s exciting to know that following purchase 79% of consumers engage in branded content, will participate in brand activities and want to connect on your social platforms. Your brand marketing should be operating to help feed and encourage this behavior. Trusted brands are repurchased, they secure loyalty and encourage evangelism.

If you’re interested in exploring the implications and strategies of a post-funnel marketing environment, use the link below to ask questions. Discussion and exploration can be enlightening, and we would be honored to talk informally with you about this exciting topic.

Looking for more food for thought? Subscribe to the Emerging Trends Report.

Bob Wheatley is the CEO of Chicago-based Emergent, The Healthy Living Agency. Traditional brand marketing often sidesteps more human qualities that can help consumers form an emotional bond. Yet brands yearn for authentic engagement, trust and a lasting relationship with their customers. Emergent helps brands erase ineffective self-promotion and replace it with clarity, honesty and deeper meaning in their customer relationships and communication. For more information, contact [email protected] and follow on Twitter @BobWheatley.

Patagonia America's most trusted brand

Your Brand Soul is the Engine of Competitive Advantage

April 24th, 2024 Posted by Behavioral psychology, brand advocacy, Brand Beliefs, Brand differentiation, brand messaging, Brand preference, Brand Soul, brand strategy, Brand trust 0 comments on “Your Brand Soul is the Engine of Competitive Advantage”

Why is it evaporating in CPG and retail brand building?

Your customers want to be part of a brand world and ecosystem you construct through conscious cultivation of your brand’s deeper meaning, higher purpose, convictions and expressed values. Never before have CPG and retail brands had this extraordinary opportunity to build such close and endearing user relationships because our culture — and consumer behavior with it — has permanently changed. Yet far too many organizations struggle with this, or ignore it, because they have inadvertently lost, diluted or forgotten their own soul. Yes, brands indeed have a soul.

  • In the absence of a clearly wrought and codified “brand constitution,” too many compromises amidst the battles of year-to-year commerce and the inevitable maturation of category rules and conventions, work to chip away at this essential brand foundation.

In the go-go 80’s and early 90’s prior to arrival of the Internet and the power transfer from corporations to consumers, much of the dialogue in brand building had a distinct military flavor to it, with brands seeking to dominate their categories, erect barriers to entry and defend their territory through command-and-control tactics. Vestiges of this thinking still remain, despite the evidence that consumer-to-brand relationship creation has transformed. In this milieu, too often the disciplines of soul nurturing are circumvented by surface level attempts to bolt on shiny imagery and applied marketing lipstick that glosses over a baked in priority for commerce metrics and transactional behaviors over consumer-relevant strategic thinking.

Building, codifying, prioritizing and delivering on the levers of brand soul are indeed vital and essential to sustainable growth in the modern consumer-powered era. People are far more interested in and attracted to your “why” (values, purpose, beliefs) than either what you do or how you do it — no matter how enamored you may be of your superior product mouse trap.

How a brand’s soul gets buried

As virtually every business category grows and matures, an implicit set of rules and boundaries begin to arise, informed by consumer and retail customer expectations, competitive actions, regulatory requirements and industry standards of conduct. These conditions tend to push all category participants towards the middle resulting in comparable product offerings, features, benefits and pricing. Over time this includes growing similarity in business practices, supply chain standards and even manufacturing processes.

The not-to-be-taken-lightly threat that incubates in this environment is the ceaseless, endless and rust-advancing march of commoditization. The condition that compels category players to emphasize scale over other considerations as they pursue efficiency gains, enforce retail leverage and bolster thinning margins.

Commoditization has already taken root in cell phones, computers, hotels, airlines, cars and many food and beverage categories – and in doing so, opportunities for innovative, soul-inspired disruptors are unleashed to move in and gain marketplace traction.

In sum, over time…

  1. Meaningful differentiation can dissipate
  2. Marketing leverage based on budget tonnage in spending eventually starts to post diminishing returns
  3. Brand soul and purpose recedes into the background amidst commoditization pressures
  4. Increasing similarity rules the day among category participants
  5. Businesses begin to focus on price promotion to achieve volume goals

Whole Foods was once a champion of purpose and meaning, its business model informed by advancing the organic movement, education around same and the firm belief foods produced this way ultimately contribute to the improved health, wellbeing and happiness of people and the environment. Since its acquisition by Amazon the belief system has receded, and in its place traditional supermarket merchandising mechanisms like PRIME promotions are driving the brand story.

Meaning and values were at one time the insulation and inoculation for Whole Foods’ higher pricing and the value proposition underneath it. Now the banner faces more competition and pricing pressures because the belief system is no longer the tip of the brand spear. Further the adoption of organic brands and sections within mainstream supermarkets serves to commodify the uniqueness of Whole Foods’ differentiation and so the advantages of its original specialness atrophies.

  • Soul is the engine that drives brand separation and elevation with consumers who actively pursue and are attracted to deeper meaning and values-leaning strategies.

Symbols can tell the tale

Consumers are remarkably adept at reading the room. We immediately understand the cues, signals, icons and images that explain what and who we’re dealing with, where we are, how to behave and what to expect from a brand.

  • What signals is your brand transmitting?
  • Are you sending the right message?
  • Do your values come through in the symbolism you generously (or not) display through every point of consumer contact?

Brands informed by their soul are always focused on fulfilling consumer need, dreams, expectations, desires and growth. They are also unafraid to express views on societal issues that consumers care about such as sustainability, environmental responsibility and the wellbeing of disadvantaged people.

Soul signals and consumer-centricity

Brand soul and higher purpose tends to fall from a deep understanding and preoccupation with supporting consumers on their life journey. This manifests from genuine care and consideration for their welfare and personal growth while also helping people realize their hopes and dreams.

It is in those dreams and aspirations that we find an emotional anchor for storytelling that moves people to embrace and join your brand ecosystem. Every human, every day wishes for progress and improvement. Are you actively helping them on their journey to grow?

From:

Unhealthy to healthy

Good to great

Weak to strong

Lonely to popular

Confused to wise

Invisible to recognized

Novice to expert

Poor to secure

Plain to fashionable

Make no mistake, to be human is to be emotional. However, brands without a soul-led code of conduct tend to talk endlessly about themselves and product features rather than enablement and celebration of consumer passions. In doing so the brand story is likely to be fact-dense and analytical, despite the reems of research confirming people won’t burn the mental calories to decipher that kind of messaging. People simply are just not fact-based, analytical decision-making machines.

How do you know if you’re succeeding? When consumers can state with clarity what your brand stands for, its meaning and purpose.

A powerful tool at your disposal: surprise and delight

Do the unexpected. In his book Unreasonable Hospitality, restaurateur and author Will Guidara tells the tale of a table of New York City visitors who were overheard saying they were disappointed that the following day they were leaving the city without ever having sampled a hot dog from one of the many carts that line the streets of Manhattan.

Mind you his restaurant, Eleven Madison Park, is one of the finest, most elite culinary palaces in New York. His team sprang into action sending a runner to track down hot dogs at a cart. They were ferried back to the kitchen where the chef arranged an artful hot dog presentation. The diners were blown away that the restaurant would do this without a word ever being spoken to staff about their hot dog curiosity. It was the restaurant’s soulful belief in unreasonable hospitality that brought the surprise to life.

Have you ever been to Harrod’s department store in London? If so, have you shopped in their over-the-top food hall? Harrod’s isn’t a supermarket mind you but thy indeed sell fresh and packaged foods. Their fresh fish displays are legendary for their artistry and creative arrangement of fresh fish choices.

Of course, any grocery store with vision and applied talent could do the same thing, with the goal of making their store talked about and Instagram worthy. Yet nothing of the sort happens past the layers of crushed ice surrounding rows of whatever fish is on feature.

Surprise and delight are a choice. It is a strategy. It recognizes the very human preference for artistry and empathy.  Stores and brands with a clearly curated and developed soul are more likely to find this path and exploit it than those that don’t and who are more comfortable staying within the category accepted norms of behavior.

  • When you’re willing to be a disruptive player you have a chance to alter the paradigm of what consumers think you are about and engineer a new and more engaging perception of your brand.

If this article has you thinking about how this could be brought to life in your business, it’s important to note you will need outside experts to help you work through the right mix of tools and messages. Use the link below to start a conversation with our team of brand soul experts.

Looking for more food for thought? Subscribe to our blog.

Bob Wheatley is the CEO of Chicago-based Emergent, the healthy living agency. Emergent provides integrated brand strategy, communications and insight solutions to national food, beverage, home and lifestyle companies. Emergent’s unique and proprietary transformation and growth focus helps organizations navigate, engage and leverage consumers’ desire for higher quality, healthier product or service experiences that mirror their desire for higher quality lifestyles. For more information, contact [email protected] and follow on Twitter @BobWheatley.

Apple swings for the emotional fence, breaks ad rules

Seven Million Reasons Why Strategy Eludes the World’s Most Expensive Ad Spend

February 23rd, 2024 Posted by Behavioral psychology, Brand differentiation, brand messaging, branded content, Consumer insight, Digital disruption, Emotional relevance, Mission, resonance, storytelling 0 comments on “Seven Million Reasons Why Strategy Eludes the World’s Most Expensive Ad Spend”

Important to respect the human sitting on other side of the screen

The Super Bowl attracted a bit north of 123 million viewers, the greatest aggregation of human eyeballs in one place at one time, and thus the reason why 53 TV spots aired at a $7 million per 30-seconds clip. It is an unprecedented event where advertising is as much of a contact sport as the action on the football field. People tune in specifically to consume the ads — what an amazing impact opportunity-in-the-waiting, but nevertheless not often optimized largely due to an absence of sound strategy on how people make decisions and take action.

  • David Ogilvy once famously remarked that if attention was all that mattered then you could put a ‘gorilla in a jockstrap’ in an ad. Yet that’s not what drives real effectiveness. He knew it and built a global agency powerhouse on that model of respect for consumer insights, perhaps now forgotten in the age of ‘can you top this’ over-reach with the display of so many digital bells and whistles.

Moreover, the Super Bowl ad is just the tip of the spending iceberg when looking at the total costs of gargantuan celebrity contact fees, massive production budgets and the veritable supermarket of extensions in packaging, retail tie-ins and social media on and off ramps.

Yet in astounding fashion, sound strategy is mostly absent from this festival of short form cinematic spectacle. The temptation to pursue attention at the expense of real relevance is just too great. In circa 2024, the ad party turned into a conspicuous mish mash of celebrity faces, much like excessive name-dropping at a Hollywood cocktail party. It’s no secret that all-too often the celebrity brand will outshine the product brand. So why does it go this way?

Guess what, emotion drives behavior

The neocortex area of the human brain governs our decisions and the actions we take. As much as we would all prefer to believe that people are logical beings who make decisions based on facts and information, instead we respond to emotional cues – how we feel in the presence of a brand. Yet too few of the ads we saw were designed with intention to drive for that kind of authentic connectivity. Given the huge one-shot spend level, you’d think it would be different.

Yes, a different approach is needed

In 2023’s super game, the highest rated commercial was a total outlier from a small pet food company called The Farmer’s Dog. This high-level and instructive achievement in strategic brand communication was the polar-opposite of the celebrity dragon-riding special effects we witnessed this year. Here Farmer’s Dog offered a story well-told that traced the poignant and touching relationship between a dog and young girl owner, charting the course of their life’s journey together. Not a word was spoken. No celebrity cameo. No green screen special effects wizardry.

It was an emotional, heartfelt, memorable celebration of the incredibly powerful and important relationship between a person and their dog. There was no recitation of production formulation features or superior ingredient claims. The brand wasn’t shouted in every frame. It didn’t need any egregious self-promotion to get the message across. It was supremely effective because people left it with an emotional connection. We all recognize that unique bond between pet parent and furry family member. The pet food existed as an enabler of pet wellbeing on life’s pathway.

Desperately seeking attention

Creating content for an engaged audience is just different than trying to capture an audience with some wild content. Too many brands seeking attention at the expense of sound strategy. The truth is human beings are feeling creatures who think not thinking creatures who feel. If you want to manage perceptions of your brand, and yes that should be a goal, then you really need to manage emotions. If your objective is to assure communication is remembered, to have impact, then emotional gravitas is paramount.

Proper use of the world’s greatest ad venue to deliver boldness

Way back in 1984, Apple used the setting to unveil their new Macintosh computer with a historic ad that captivated the world’s attention. It was a bold and also controversial strike, so much so the Apple Board was wary of showing it right up to the telecast. It aired and both ad history and the upstart Apple brand was made. It was a powerful message about democratizing the power of creativity and expression in the hands or everyone – railing against the dictates of the “establishment.”

Speaking of bold, what about sustainability and ESG in the midst of uncertainty?

Nearly every major brand in the food, beverage and lifestyle worlds is working hard to address their sustainability bona fides and emissions performance. It is by definition an opportunity for a brand to focus on higher purpose, mission, reputation and value beyond transactional thinking. Yet we don’t see that showcased here. We have entered a new era where brands are expected to have a point of view, a belief system and to be standard bearers of change. We remain hopeful that someday soon, a progressive brand will take advantage of the super venue to convey what people seek – a healthier, safer planet.

Guidance going forward

Put the consumer at the center of your planning and thinking and work backwards from there. Recognize that shameless self-promotion makes a brand the hero of any story told, and by doing so casts the brand in direct competition with the consumer who sees themselves each and every day as the hero of their life’s journey. Celebrate your consumer and their wishes, needs and aspirations like Farmer’s Dog did with such excellence. This is sound strategy. Your brand deserves this approach to spending effectiveness and outcomes, whether at the Super Bowl or in routine quarterly brand and business support.

If this post gets you thinking about how best to optimize and improve your planning for improved communications effectiveness, use the email link below to ask questions and start and informal conversation.

Looking for more food for thought? Subscribe to the Emerging Trends Report.

Bob Wheatley is the CEO of Chicago-based Emergent, The Healthy Living Agency. Traditional brand marketing often sidesteps more human qualities that can help consumers form an emotional bond. Yet brands yearn for authentic engagement, trust and a lasting relationship with their customers. Emergent helps brands erase ineffective self-promotion and replace it with clarity, honesty and deeper meaning in their customer relationships and communication. For more information, contact [email protected] and follow on Twitter @BobWheatley.

Social media strategy reset due to culture changes

The Culture Driven Reset of Social Media

February 14th, 2024 Posted by brand messaging, Culture change, Culture trend, Higher Purpose, Mission, Social media, Social proof, storytelling 0 comments on “The Culture Driven Reset of Social Media”

Social responds to a world on fire

When social media first arrived nearly 20 years ago (time flies doesn’t it!) following the birth of Facebook, it didn’t take that long for the vital channel to commercially evolve, monetize itself and become an extension of brand broadcast strategy via paid distribution. However, the world has changed and with it the ‘best practices’ approach to social channel strategy is recalibrating. Are you ready?

Here we will examine the evolution and provide guidance on how to embrace the reset of what social is intended to be and how your brand should plan within it.

Culture influences consumer behavior

Culture change is coming more rapidly than ever before and it’s having a profound impact on how brands behave in the marketplace. Because, as always, consumers hold sway while they mirror and appropriate cultural trends. For example, witness the rapid ascension of —

  • Values-driven consumer behavior.
  • Escalating conscious consumption.
  • Alignment between people and brands on mission and beliefs.
  • Growing role of brand higher purpose, empathy and deeper meaning.

Integrating culture with social strategy

It’s time to integrate culture trends within your social plans and strategies. That means your brand must work hard to understand, then embrace, and also consider how to lead cultural change.

Think for a moment about what’s going in around us right now. Did any of you observe the incredible Instagram reels of raging floods and devastating mudslides in southern California? Don’t know about you, but I’ve never seen anything remotely horrific like that before in the SoCal area. It was truly alarming. Also symptomatic of what’s influencing culture shifts around us now, and it is having a profound impact on social media.

Here’s the culture influence impact gallery –

  • Chaotic climate developments, news of same and extreme weather events.
  • Elections that might appear to challenge the foundations of democracy.
  • Looming concern of AI disruption on the horizon.
  • Wars, more wars, attacks and terrorism on the rise.
  • Pervasive feeling of lost control over our lives and the world around us.

The only thing that’s certain is growing uncertainty

  • The key insight: Social communities are an anchor in the storm to help users navigate a world on fire around them. The shared interests, passions, attitudes of like-minded people all coalesce with those who seek common ground and to make sense of their lives.

Up to this point, social strategy was defined mainly by branded content and paid distribution of product-centric stories and promotions. It represented a co-mingling of branded content, community and media spend/traction imperatives.

Now with the influence of culture trends, brands need to build a more meaningful, relevant value exchange in return for consumer time and attention.

Move from brand first to audience first content and narratives

Social strategy is shifting to embrace authentic, lo-fi, real and more intimate content designed to both inform and entertain – and created intentionally for organic traction. It’s a de-emphasis on measuring reach and eyeballs in favor of qualitative assessments, shares and meaningful interaction. People want, maybe even need, to participate in communities of shared passions and fandom. It presages a rise in the importance of user generated content that will be unscripted, unpolished and also unpredictable.

Here are some tactical considerations to fold into your thinking:

Rise of the creator economy: micro-influence from creators is redefining the social channel engagement plan. #booktok, #healthtok and #cleantok are all symptomatic of niche creator communities where innovation and brand collabs will become increasingly important. Coke recently invited creators to use AI inspired tools to share unique holiday themed images.

Video, video and more video: Did you know that 58.5% of time spent on social is spent consuming videos? We’re moving from ad cutdowns for social consumption to video intentionally designed to instruct, guide and coach in an “edutainment” format. As a natural extension of this development, longer form videos will gain favor like this lively, fun effort on behalf of Hilton Hotels.

The role of AI in social: AI is being deployed to automate and elevate community monitoring and in doing so to support social teams with intel on social behaviors, sentiment and social listening. AI will also be used to facilitate more customized content delivery and enable advanced content creation like Coke’s Real Magic image effort cited above.

LinkedIn and B-to-B outreach: LinkedIn has a grip on B-to-B social interaction. It is a great environment to showcase company culture and staff expertise. Nearly 75% of B-to-B companies already leverage CEOs, academics and doctors for content creation there. We expect employee engagement on the platform to grow, working to position staff as opinion leaders with insider knowledge.

Uncertainty in the world around us is changing the value proposition for social channels, with a call to level-up on community building. It offers a safe harbor at a time when people want to engage with others who share their specific passions. The essential strategic shift is from brand first, audience second thinking to the reverse of that point of view. Goes without saying that properly curated and fed, social channel value in the brand marketing playbook is growing while the content game plan targets relevance.

If this post gets you thinking about social strategy and you’d like to ask questions about your brand’s approach to optimizing your social community plans, use this link to share your thoughts and start an informal conversation.

Looking for more food for thought? Subscribe to the Emerging Trends Report.

Bob Wheatley is the CEO of Chicago-based Emergent, The Healthy Living Agency. Traditional brand marketing often sidesteps more human qualities that can help consumers form an emotional bond. Yet brands yearn for authentic engagement, trust and a lasting relationship with their customers. Emergent helps brands erase ineffective self-promotion and replace it with clarity, honesty and deeper meaning in their customer relationships and communication. For more information, contact [email protected] and follow on Twitter @BobWheatley.

Brands that lean into courage have the opportunity for uniqueness

The Most Underutilized Strategic Brand Asset: Courage

January 26th, 2024 Posted by Brand differentiation, brand messaging, brand strategy, Differentiation, Marketing Strategy 0 comments on “The Most Underutilized Strategic Brand Asset: Courage”

Bold moves can overcome limited uniqueness

Let’s face it, in the vast majority of CPG categories — despite efforts by some brands to push forms of differentiation — for the most part they are cloaked with sameness and similarity. It is just hard to find fertile territory for defensible, sustainable and obvious-to-everyone uniqueness. You may start out as a unicorn, until competing brands reverse engineer your leap, then differences in story and concept start to recede.

That doesn’t mean you should give up on constantly pushing the strategic envelope towards radical differentiation. The benefits of creating a “category of one” are remarkable and profitable. Brand standouts spend less on marketing because of their natural magnetism, allure and the elevated distinctive value they possess. It just doesn’t require constant drumbeating to out shout adjacent competitors. You don’t need to, and you aren’t focused on them to begin with.

Let’s be real: it’s likely over time that what made you famous will be commoditized. Jamba Juice invented the smoothie business. Over time smoothies were commoditized by similar competing products/brands and the emergence of RTD (ready to drink) versions in every corner of grocery and foodservice retail. Jamba started down a strategic path to differentiate itself by transforming into a healthy lifestyle brand. We know the details as we were part of the effort.

But that takes time, added investment — and less patient investors pushed back on doing anything that stepped beyond the core concept, forcing Jamba back into its commoditized cup. Which reminds me of Marlon Brando’s famous line from On The Waterfront, “I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody” – ah yes too many brands find themselves eventually in a wistful trap, at times of their own doing. (Assuming they recognize the lost opportunity).

Leaning into over-reach

But don’t despair, there’s another pathway available if you have the courage and fortitude to pursue it. Here it is – do something generic with such bravery and power it appears to others that you are the only game in town. Whatever that focus might be, you creatively own it, manifest it, and lean into it without reservation, hesitance or limitation.

In Will Guidara’s eye-opening book “Unreasonable Hospitality” he recounts the journey for his restaurant Eleven Madison Park to being named the best restaurant in the world. Not by pushing the envelope of complicated, artistic tweezer food excellence – a frankly similar strategy advanced by nearly every top-echelon restaurant and celebrity chef on the voyage to four stars-dom. No, they bent the rule and devoted themselves to ridiculous, unreasonable, over-the-top, crazy levels of hospitality and guest service. In doing so Eleven Madison became a category of one in a uber-class of similarly great kitchens all helmed by talented culinary commanders.

First Alert, the smoke alarm brand, invented the residential smoke detector and in doing so saved countless lives. An engineering driven company, it beat everyone else by being first with the most. Over time however, the transfer of marketplace power to large format retailers like Walmart and Home Depot, the business was commoditized and sold on price – technology appearing to most consumers as the same between brands. However, another tech innovation at First Alert opened the door to rethinking the brand and business.

First Alert once again stepped up to invent the residential carbon monoxide alarm, addressing an insidious household hazard and source of deadly blood poisoning from an invisible, odorless  gas released by malfunctioning furnaces, stoves, water heaters and fireplaces. The event created an opportunity to pivot, and First Alert embarked on a journey to home safety brand focused on the health, safety and wellbeing of families. The mission- oriented platform enabled a new brand voice in parallel with unusual collaboration partners that reached way beyond “stop, drop and roll.” It was a magical era for the company and its growth until ownership changes forced it backwards into the old engineering mindset and price driven player in commodity categories. Heavy sigh. We know the details because again we were engaged in building the strategic shift while it lasted over a nine-year period.

Outerwear brands embracing sustainability isn’t unique. Messaging around protecting planet earth is everywhere in the category. Strategically there’s not much separation in this business based on these beliefs and the tech in garments. But Patagonia has emerged as a category of one despite this condition by its sheer tenacity and willingness to over-reach, over-extend itself on the path to sustainable behaviors and policies.

If its broke, they fix it. Yes Patagonia, in their effort to reduce its impact on resource consumption and emissions, encourages users to avoid purchasing new garments by offering free and unlimited repairs on any of their products. Some might say, are you crazy? Like a fox we say. The continued efforts by Patagonia to break rules and stretch itself beyond ‘normal and expected’ is testament to a form of strategic brilliance. It is and they are unique in a business where other types of real differentiation are hard to own.

The requirement here is boldness and courage; to take your belief system and push it to ‘unreasonable’ edges. On the path you can expect to face decision making that will be hard, strange at times and difficult. You do it because as a business you actually, really, truly mean what you say and claim to be important. The call to action happens when the ethos holds the decision-making keys to the kingdom and you just over-commit.

Do something inspiring

If you’re looking for a consistent thread in these examples, it’s in executive leadership that is both visionary and courageous. That means leaders who hold the belief system close and see the advantages hidden in the tea leaves to push beyond the norms of expected and reasonable brand behaviors.

The Super Bowl is coming soon. While it may be distant memory for many, or not a memory at all for most, Apple introduced its Macintosh computer with one of the boldest and most ambitious TV commercials ever made. It was expensive to produce and air. It was an over-commit of the highest order employing a strategy counterintuitive to tech category behaviors. The marketing budget was invested in a swing for the fence that didn’t mention a single product feature or benefit. It was wholly a cinematic and emotional statement of ‘now you can change the world.’

Kapow in 60 seconds. It was a gutsy move to be sure and a manifestation in 1984 of new thinking about brand purpose and meaning that cast Apple as a category of one. The belief system held sway and the courage shown there was palpable. Jobs made it so, enabled by his creative partner Lee Clow from ad agency Chiat Day. Eventually Microsoft did their turn on the ‘graphical user interface’ innovation with Windows, but it never pushed Apple off its course. Even with some tech equivalence in there, Apple remains a separate, unique and distinct brand with a huge base of advocates and ambassadors.

  • Make no mistake, employees are part of the solution here. When you over commit, they need to join you as a population of insider, storytelling evangelists.

The roadmap to adventure

This all starts with your brand’s higher purpose, deeper meaning and belief system. If you don’t really have a fix on that then none of this really works because there’s nothing powerful enough to over-commit to.

  • What are you on the planet to accomplish beyond balance sheet imperatives? How are you working to improve people’s lives? Whatever your higher purpose might be that draws consumers in, you should know that people want to be a part of something greater than themselves.

Once you have refined your brand “why” it’s fair to ask what can you do to stretch and over-deliver on that promise? If the answers you come up with bring some discomfort, that’s a good thing. When courage is required, you know you’re on the right path.

Our point: differentiation isn’t always found only in the product and category you created. It can be brought to life going above and beyond to deliver on your purpose. This can get you to ownable differentiation, just remember you can’t take your foot off the gas. If you do, commoditization’s rustiness will begin to take root. In the immortal words of rock band Journey’s legendary lead singer Steve Perry, “Don’t Stop Believin.”

If this story inspires you to explore brand courage and boldness, and you’d like to discuss the potential framework with experienced hands, use the link below to start an informal conversation to discuss your journey to uniqueness.

Looking for more food for thought? Subscribe to the Emerging Trends Report.

Bob Wheatley is the CEO of Chicago-based Emergent, The Healthy Living Agency. Traditional brand marketing often sidesteps more human qualities that can help consumers form an emotional bond. Yet brands yearn for authentic engagement, trust and a lasting relationship with their customers. Emergent helps brands erase ineffective self-promotion and replace it with clarity, honesty and deeper meaning in their customer relationships and communication. For more information, contact [email protected] and follow on Twitter @BobWheatley.

Narrowcasting to the most relevant and engaged audience

Brand Strength in Fewer Numbers

January 23rd, 2024 Posted by brand advocacy, brand messaging, Brand preference, Consumer insight, Emotional relevance, Social community, Social media, storytelling 0 comments on “Brand Strength in Fewer Numbers”

Narrowcasting to fans, followers and advocates…

If you look under the hood of a strong brand with a demonstrated higher purpose, belief system and investment in social community building, you will find a percolating audience of consumer ambassadors and believers. A symbiotic relationship exists here as the brand invests in them and they reciprocate with support as frequent users and evangelists often via word-of-mouth. All of this, mind you, can be strategic and intentional, even when the manifestations appear to be organic.

An outcome of the digital age, we find greater efficacy in narrower channels of media that cater to special interests and topics resonating to the hearts and minds of the brand’s most devoted followers. In many cases this also attests to the 80/20 rule: 80 percent of profits come from 20 percent of a brand’s most ardent followers and users. This happens repeatedly.

  • So we pose the question: how does this play out in earned media strategy? It’s a fair question because earned media outreach is often devoted to a long-standing tool of the mass media era, the venerable press release, its distribution usually a shotgun affair that goes in every direction.

Narrowcast vs. broadcast

Name the category where strong brands exist and you’ll find media resonant to core lifestyle interests and passions of a brand’s most frequent users. It is here where the truly gifted earned media artists devote time and energy to building relationships with editors and contributors – those who populate these influential media channels with engaging content.

Earned media isn’t transactional, at least not most of the time. The path to outcomes in this setting are negotiated through interaction and conversation between people. The communications experts from the brand side are packaging and presenting relevant story background ideas/material to discuss with reporters whose areas of focus closely matches the topics of interest for a brand’s best users.

The entire proposition is driven by mutual respect, credibility, service to the reader, editorial sensibility and well-researched supporting material, reports and sources who form the alchemy of any solid feature story treatment. The paradigm is fueled through mutual interest and effort over time to build a solid, reliable relationship between source and scribe. It’s definitely not “spray and pray” as press releases can be referred to in wire service distribution terms.

  • Our point: there’s more to be gained in narrowcasting earned media strategies to specific channels where special interests are served, and this is territory where media relationships are nurtured over time. Reporters tend to go back to reliable sources.

The ladder: vertical to national

Ask any brand executive and you’ll get feedback that national bluechip media coverage is always a desirable outcome from elite media brands like the New York Times, Bloomberg, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal or network TV news. Vertical media often get the short sheet in this conversation, but they shouldn’t. Category trade media plays a vital, vibrant role not only between a brand and its key stakeholder audiences of distributors and retailers, it’s also a proving ground for larger story ideas.

Trade coverage that touches on a core editorial idea relevant to larger national media is an immediate credibility booster to the story efficacy and dimensions in a non-competitive setting. This comprises a circular editorial eco-system where coverage in trades is useful in conversations with national media. While national coverage tends to drive incremental stories in vertical channels. Both are good, solid, strategic components of a strong earned media plan.

  • Both indeed are driven by relationships, creativity and solid performances by brand PR experts who know their results depend on fulfilling the promises in a good working relationship with key editors, reporters and producers.

If this stimulates some questions about optimal editorial media strategies or similar situations you wrestle with, use the link below to open an informal dialogue.

Looking for more food for thought? Subscribe to the Emerging Trends Report.

Bob Wheatley is the CEO of Chicago-based Emergent, The Healthy Living Agency. Traditional brand marketing often sidesteps more human qualities that can help consumers form an emotional bond. Yet brands yearn for authentic engagement, trust and a lasting relationship with their customers. Emergent helps brands erase ineffective self-promotion and replace it with clarity, honesty and deeper meaning in their customer relationships and communication. For more information, contact [email protected] and follow on Twitter @BobWheatley.

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