The brand differentiation myth: Are you really prepared to pay the price?

One of the mantras of the brand industry is this notion that every company, every organisation, every corner shop has to have some unique offering that sets it apart.

The principal that underpins the idea is that one of the functional purposes of a brand is to help consumers decide who they will choose in the market place.

I agree with the logic underpinning that but I think there is also a point at which the obsession with being different can go too far.  More to the point, it just isn’t that simple.

For every product category consumers will have a set of basic expectations – what some marketers refer to as hygiene factors.  I expect that my house will have a roof, my car will have wheels and that my accountant will know how to add up. 

Funnily enough, or perhaps not so funny, there are examples of companies that have built a successful brand out of boasting of their ability to meet these basic expectations.  In my town we have a plumbing company that pitches for business every day on the basis that their tradesmen will turn up on time.  (As many of us who’ve sacrificed half a day to wait for a tradesman can attest, we’d be grateful if they turned up at all!)

But putting these examples aside, trying to find your point of genuine differentiation can be difficult.  Price is probably the most dangerous one.  You can see what has happened in the retail world.  It is like a game of economic limbo: every entrant in the market just tries to go a little bit lower.  After a while the crowd just expects it.  But the race to the bottom means little value is placed on the product – it is just about price.  Marketers call this the commoditisation of the market place ... your product or service is just another commodity (yawn, what’s for dinner tonight?)

Then there is service.  If you want to read a brilliant book on the genuine challenge of turning service delivery into a brand differentiator, then try Joe Calloway’s Becoming a Category of One.  The problem, as Calloway points out, is that all your competitors (if you are really honest) aren’t THAT bad.  Banks in Australia are a good example.  Yes, there was a time when they were closing branches.  But they pretty quickly realised their mistake and while few people could really be in love with their bank, most of the time their service is acceptable. (With the exception of call centre waiting times and branch queues perhaps).

So what does that leave us with?  I think the answer to that is a simple word: Relationship.  Now this doesn’t apply to every category I accept that … especially in the online world.  The other word we might use is trust but for me that is a benefit that comes from a company that genuinely wants to have a relationship with its clients or customers.  Screech – loud breaking noise: Let’s read that sentence again with an emphasis on the critical words: a company THAT GENUINELY WANTS TO HAVE A RELATIONSHIP with its clients or customers.

The word relationship in business is almost as abused as the word strategy.  But it implies a depth that most of us don’t stop to think about.

Being in a relationship means commitment, it means that you will go above and beyond and that you will make sacrifices in time and energy to keep the “relationship” alive.

It means some stirring of the emotions.  That’s the really tough bit once a company gets beyond the size of the corner shop.  Relationship is fundamentally related to humanity.  Unfortunately many large organisations have become increasingly obsessed with eliminating the human factor from their business model: That’s because human beings are essentially frail and prone to failing.  We fall back on automation and systems and processes that override the ability of human beings to show discretion.

This whole trend started in manufacturing and for good reason and comes with great benefits.  Just look at the reliability of motor vehicles to see the benefits we consumers have reaped from this kind of approach.

I accept that as any organisations becomes bigger and its operations are stretched beyond a handful of people, we all need systems and processes to keep things running efficiently.

But what I increasingly see are companies trying to manufacture a brand to place on top of that largely inhuman structure and then wondering why their customers don’t see them as different to everyone else.

I see this a lot.  The CEO sets out to transform the corporate culture urging employees to put the customer first; there’s lot of singing and dancing but 18 months down the track, nothing has changed.  Sure, you changed the corporate mission statement and had the brand agency release a new video, but the systems that underpin the delivery to customers remains the dominant influencer of customer experience.  As much as your employees may genuinely want to do the right thing, you’ve built a structure around them that is choking the brand to death.  So your so-called exercise in differentiation dies before it has even started.

So, I keep on coming back to relationship.  And that’s why genuine differentiation is much more difficult than most companies are prepared to accept.  It means reaching down deep and wide into your organisation – not just a one-hour workshop or three month brand review.

You have to design your systems and processes with a genuine desire to positively impact on relationships - on making life better for the people you exist to serve.  That’s why true brand differentiation is a truly rare commodity.  It is expensive and difficult.  That’s why it’s so rare but equally, so valuable.

Briefs matter OK?

One of the most undervalued but critical tools in the marketing and communication toolbox is a well-written brief.

Coming from journalism I struggled at first with the notion of giving people written instructions before they set out to do a piece of work.  I came from a fast-moving newsroom environment where the closest thing we got to a briefing session was a few words shouted down the phone as you ran to the car.

However, after years of observation and a few painful experiences along the way, I can attest to the great value of putting time and effort into the briefing process.

For those of you not familiar with the idea, a brief is commonly used in the communication process between a client assigning a piece of work to an advertising agency. 

The great value of the brief is that the very process of articulating precisely what is required forces everyone to focus and significantly increases the chances that what is created will actually align with the problem that needs to be solved.

I am not a big fan of briefs longer than two A4 pages.  If you want to provide additional background information by all means do so but as an addendum to the main document.

The most important element of the brief is the section describing precisely what needs to be achieved and how success will be measured.  Be specific.  Are we talking about attitudinal change or a influencing a specific behaviour?  I always like to spell out very clearly to the creative agency how success will be measured by the client.  For example: If sales inquiries increase by 10% then the campaign will be judged successful.  This leaves no room for doubt as to what you need the creative outcome to achieve.  

The nature of the briefing process will change as the relationship between the client and agency matures.  In the early days you will need to invest more time but that doesn’t mean briefs can be abandoned down the track. In fact, I have a theory that often the issues that develop between agencies and clients have their origins in the briefing process.  (That is an oversimplification but I think a tightly controlled briefing process can help avoid the misunderstandings and presumptions that turn into relationship breakers).

Many agencies have their own briefing documents, as do clients – and I am fine with that.  The most important thing about the briefing process is that maximum effort is applied in ensuring utter clarity and shared purpose between client and agency. Of course even the perfect brief doesn’t guarantee the best creative outcome…but it sizeably reduces the risk that client and agency will end up at loggerheads AND noticeably INCREASES the chances of a successful result.

The social media conundrum

Of all the issues many in-house communication teams are struggling with right now (apart from budgets) the most common one I hear is the social media conundrum.

There'll be someone in the office, possibly not even in the marketing or communications team who is constantly prodding: We should be on Facebook!  Look, everyone else is!  Or: we should open up an Instagram account or start tweeting.  Of course, the sentiments are usually genuine. Then there is the member of the Executive team, perhaps the CEO, who goes to a conference and hears the slick presentation from some social media guru.  He or she comes back spruiking the gospel according to St Gizmo and pretty soon you are charging down the path of launching pages, opening accounts and writing blogs.

None of this is bad okay?  I recognise too that the best digital practitioners are often the most cautious when it comes to recommending a client enters the social media sphere.  And hey, there is no question at all that digital is transforming the world – I am not a digital denier. (In fact, I have a hunch that historians in the future will identify the period we are living in right now as the time the digital revolution really started to transform how we live and work.) 

However, like everything else in business any decision about engaging in social media as a corporate entity needs to begin with a clear understanding of how it might help achieve your business objectives.  Most importantly, will it actually improve your product or service offering for your customers?  Will their experience improve? Do the people you need to connect with actually use social media?  Even if they do, how likely is it that they will want you, a commercial entity, to enter what they might regard as their personal world. (I still struggling with my bank wanting to be my Facebook friend...) From the customer's perspective, can your product or service offering genuinely be improved via social media?  How?  If we DO decide to open up a social media channel for ongoing communication with clients or customers, can we support it on an ongoing basis? 

Answering those questions requires some honest assessment and a little deep thinking.

I stress again, I am not arguing against you taking the social media leap – it has amazing possibilities.  But to quote that timeless aphorism – look, before you leap.

The MOST critical need in a crisis

Crisis communication has been turned into a speciality practice all of its own.  So much so that there are great thick books you can read or week long seminars you can attend.

Of course, preparation is critical.  Having your crisis communications tool kit in order can make a huge difference to your capability to respond and save your brand and reputation from massive damage. However, I’ve come to the conclusion that the entire tool kit can be made redundant unless you control what I believe is the most critical factor: emotion.

I’ve seen it time and time again.  You wake up to find your company the subject of a leaked report – an ugly headline on the news website or front page. 

Yes, you want to know who leaked the information and why?  You feel the immediate pressure to respond.  But the critical word in that sentence is “feel”.  An emotion charged response or a response plan driven by feeling is likely to end in disaster. 

I’d go so far as to say that a senior team member who is seen to be reacting emotionally needs to be removed from the response team.  That’s difficult – especially if the emotionally charged individual happens to be the CEO or Chair of the Board.  Nevertheless, allowing emotion to influence your actions in a time of crisis should be avoided at all costs.  It will inevitably pervert the response, inflame the situation and maximise the chance of things just getting worse.

My prescription: Have the chill pills front and centre of your crisis comms kit

Is an annoying ad bad for your business?

Have you ever reached a point where you want to throw something at the TV if THAT annoying commercial comes on just one more time?

The saturation style advertising we see during live sport broadcasts is most likely to draw out that the kind of reaction.  You know the scene where every ad break is a combination of one of four sponsoring companies with the same 30 second commercial played over and over again.

Of course, technology has now given us the chance to fast forward through ads and avoid them altogether.  That means the days when we were forced to sit like zombies growing increasingly enraged appeared have gone.

However, despite all that, I am not convinced that annoying TV commercials are necessarily that bad for business.  It simply depends on what the ad is trying to do make you think or do – OR who it is aimed at.  For example, many women are understandably outraged at the depictions of immature males acting like buffoons in beer ads.  Here’s the thing girls: The ad isn’t aimed at you!  The advertiser has its eyes set on the stupid gene that sadly tickles the fancy of a great many males aged 18-25.  (I’m not saying that’s a good thing by the way, I am simply making the point that what is annoying to one person might be a barrel of laughs for another).

There is no doubt that the ads that annoy me most on TV are those ranting Harvey Norman screamathons.  100 years interest free!  Never pay, anything…at all…ever!  But the point is when I am in the market for an electrical device does the ad stop me from going to Harvey Norman? Honestly?   Nope.  In fact, I have the words Harvey Norman, cheap, discount and lower prices burned into memory.

Of course, if the purpose of an ad is to make me feel more affectionate towards the brand, that’s another matter.  Again, even brand commercials are designed to target a specific audience, so don’t judge them too quickly. 

However, in order to do its work any brand commercial has to engage me emotionally at some level.  That doesn’t always mean I like the content.  It could be more that the ad draws me in and works away in my sub-conscious.  Studies show great ads have to work at both a rational and emotional level.

So to answer the question: Yes, an annoying ad can be bad for your business but it depends on a whole range of factors.  That’s why a few thousand dollars spent on ad testing in advance of your campaign is probably a worthwhile investment.  Annoying as research can be.