As John Hagel has observed, the middle market is dying as market dynamics radicalise. At one end, the sectors that are scaling continue to expand footprint and influence; at the other, the long tail stretches further as the market fragments into more and more bit players fighting for a percentum of market share. This dissolution of the middle ground as a viable competitive position leaves most brands with five growth options in my opinion: three are about growing bigger; two suggest growing smaller (but heightening profit as you do so).
Here’s how I map the options:
Global – Focuses on achieving presence and familiarity on a world stage. In my presentation on this at The Un-Conference, I discussed how Heineken set their sights on being a world player right from the start. This was all the more disruptive because beer is a notoriously localised product. Heineken’s master stroke has been to build everything they do around this world view and to associate themselves with events and campaigns that heighten their global connections.
National/local – Global brands may have high awareness but the reality is that local brands are growing at twice the rate of global brands in many parts of the world and they continue to account for the majority of shoppers’ purchase decisions across all regions – particularly Asia. Far from copying the strategies of global rivals, these brands are using their proximity to the market to engage consumers and build loyalty. Their growth strategies are underpinned by accents on accessibility and habit. They grow by quickly identifying and accurately responding to local requirements, be they new flavours or marketing campaigns with a local slant.
Challenger – A powerful strategy to break out of the middle market for those in the dreaded 4, 5 and 6 positions. Challenger brands are like the people leaning out the windows yelling into the rain in the film Network. Their sentiment: “We’re mad as hell and we just can’t take it anymore”. Their contempt is for the restrictions and the norms that confine how sectors behave. These are brands built on personality and purpose.
Niche – As the world moves back to authentic and particularly artisan, there’s opportunities for brands that demonstrate particular attention to detail or that deliberately self-limit their scope in order to do one thing very well. Niche brands are about perspective and expertise. They manifest in two key forms in my view: craftsmanship brands; and ingredient brands.
Cult – Some brands choose to operate under the radar. These brands are found rather than marketed, and they deliberately look to set themselves apart from the mainstream. As a result, they develop passionate fan bases but remain largely unknown. Sriracha Hot Chili Sauce, for example, has no Facebook page or Twitter account and hasn’t updated its website since 2004, yet last year sold around 20 million bottles of product. Cult brands are about exclusivity and integrity. In the case of Sriracha, they have been name-checked on The Simpsons, spotted on the International Space Station and even had a film made about them.
So five options, five choices, right? Not necessarily.
This is where it gets really interesting. In his book Building Strong Brands, David Aaker talks about the need for marketers to move beyond the management of brands to the management of brand systems. Increasingly those systems incorporate elements of several of these approaches as brands mix scale with intimacy to rebalance their portfolios and broaden their appeal. Burberry for example now have sub-labels that run all the way from accessible to exclusive. Vespa – the idiosyncratic motorbike – is pushing into India, the largest vehicle market in the world. Ben & Jerrys are part of Unilever and yet they still behave like a rebel. All of these strategies are shifting and mixing the mechanisms. But the mechanisms are exactly that – ultimately, the key to competitiveness is understanding the goals you have set and the mindset your brand will need to push forward in the face of ramping pressure.
An alternative view of strategy options
Brand strategist Allan Finkelman sees the strategy options another way. He distinguishes the global, national/local and niche approaches as audience specific, and challenger and cult as strategic approaches. And, he suggests, that we should add leader to the approaches sub-category. Global, national and niche brands will take a leader position or a challenger position, or they may seek to be a much rarer cult brand and make their own rules.
Such debate over how brands should find their way forward is healthy. Divergence of opinion is what makes brand strategy so interesting. Whatever you believe and whichever way you go, I believe you still need to be clear on eight things:
- Why you compete
- How and where you want to compete
- Who you want to bring with you
- Where the engagement opportunities lie
- The nature of the relationship that makes you money
- Your long and short stories
- The enemy (even if you’re the incumbent)
- Why, when and how you will change proactively
Photo of “high-five” taken by Martin Fisch, sourced from Flickr