What it says on the tin
It is said there are two types of brands: lighthouse brands – who inspire, lead and innovate – and mirror brands – who give the customer exactly what they want. I’ll argue why brands should aspire to the former, and how this also constitutes the qualities of the latter.
Great brands follow no one and are followed by many. The reason why these brands are more successful and sustainable (my assumption, please challenge) is that they are more authentic; they are pro-active rather than re-active; they influence culture rather than being slaves of, and falling victims to, unpredictable and short-lived trends. It is the company’s intrinsic vision and values which inform their actions, not those of their customers and competitors. They don’t just give people what they want; they give them what they didn’t yet know they wanted.
Most brands occupy a position along the scale between lighthouse and mirror; the lighthouses are the obvious ones (Google, Apple bla bla bla), while at the mirror end we find all the retailers who still believe their customers are perfect specimens of homo economicus and whose lives revolve around hunting down a good bargain.
So what can be done to slide up the scale? Paying less attention to your competitors and customers is a good place to start. I think an obsession with competitors and customers early in the strategy process inhibits thinking and lure brands towards the downward spiral of reactivity.
Mapping the category according to a couple of key drivers is a useful exercise. Focusing on squeezing into the last little white spot on the map is everything but. Implicitly acknowledging that there are no more frontiers is admitting defeat. Brands need to start looking outside their respective category maps and draw their own!
Great brands give people what they didn’t yet know they wanted. Human beings are rarely capable of articulating their wants as they focus on what they rationally want. This, of course, is only half the truth, as our decisions are mainly driven by our emotional subconscious.
Further, both customer wants and competitor activity are driven by trends. Trends are short-lived and unpredictable and make up for unreliable entities to base your strategy on.
Of course, one should have an understanding of customers and competitors; it is a given. But one should be careful not to give them too much influence.
Richard Huntington writes about position vs. positioning in his brilliant Adliterate blog. The book Cultural Strategy talks about the importance of ideological innovation. By championing a position on a topic that people care about, or by championing an ideology, mindset or worldview that resonates with people, the brand is being associated with something infinitely more powerful than low prices. It is engaging with people. Not because they hit like on the Facebook page, but because they share something deeper.
A position must be credible and derived from the company’s vision and values, in addition to the actual product functionality. I question, for example, Cadbury’s claim to deliver joy. Their ads kind of do, but isn’t it a bit of a stretch to say that their chocolates deliver joy? Simply associating oneself with a generic positive emotion is not sustainable. Dove’s campaign for real beauty is a good example of championing a position and ideology in which the product plays a central part. They started a movement by articulating and acting on an underlying cultural sentiment.
(Here is an idea I had)
Sometimes lighthouses and mirrors come from outside the category, sometimes they’re not brands at all. Nike influenced culture, not just trainer customers. One of the best examples of mirror brands are our two major political parties, whose strategy is a sad mix of doing exactly what the focus groups say and saying the exact opposite of the other party do. Not what we’d expect from our leaders.
A strategy dominated by positioning in relation to competitors, or delivering what people think they want, is reactive. Reactive brands are always one step behind. And, more importantly, they are superficial. When a brand is not true to itself, it loses its identity. A brand’s identity is the foundation and structure for its long-term strategy. When trends and customer preferences inevitably move on, this foundation, which should provide continuity and the ground rules to inform future moves, reveals itself to have been non-existent. Again they will be forced into a headless me-too move; one which invariably involves lowering prices. “Was 60% off, now 70% off” isn’t a strategy; it’s desperation.
So what it really all comes down to, is what so many brands preach, but rarely practice these days: Be Yourself. It’s a sign of confidence and maturity. Become a lighthouse for your teenage competitors and for all of us who look for something to believe in.