Another Tale of ‘Differentiate or Die’

My favorite marketing mantra is the title of the Jack Trout book Differentiate or Die. It is at the same time straightforward, provocative, and applicable in many situations. In a world in which we have a great deal of choice for most of the products and services we buy, standing out from competition is a must. To be clear, it is not about standing out in a dye-your-hair-pink way; it is defining what you or your business does better or uniquely that distinguishes your brand from similar offerings. Without differentiation, it is very difficult to make a persuasive case that your brand offers sufficient value to justify product purchase. In the extreme case, failure to differentiate can result in business death.

Today’s installment of Differentiate or Die is brought to you by the Atlanta Thrashers. The NHL franchise is being sold to an ownership group that will relocate the team to Winnipeg. The Thrashers were the second coming of the NHL in Atlanta, which lost its first team in 1980 to Calgary. The second life of the NHL in Atlanta lasted 12 seasons but met the same fate as the Atlanta Flames 21 years earlier. Why?

There are many reasons, too many to discuss here. Perhaps the greatest challenge is the stiff competition for the sports entertainment dollar in the market. The Braves, Falcons, Hawks, Georgia Tech, and University of Georgia are formidable obstacles. And, that is only sports entertainment competitors. When other entertainment, leisure, and cultural opportunities are considered, the Thrashers faced immense competition in a nontraditional hockey market.

Competition was a significant issue for the Atlanta Thrashers, but in the end it would be too easy to blame the team’s troubles on the other sports properties in the area. The demise of the Atlanta Thrashers is due in part to what it did not do: differentiate itself from other sports entertainment brands in Atlanta. It was part of the sports landscape, but being a big league team is not a sufficiently compelling reason to become a fan, sponsor, or ticket buyer. It does not matter if you sell hockey or hot dogs, or whether you are a major league sports property or a local mom and pop business, differentiation is essential. Can you answer the question “How am I better, unique, or different?” I hope so.

Another Tale of "Differentiate or Die"

News that Microsoft may discontinue its Zune music player may be denied by the company, but it seems to be only a matter of time before it will happen. Launched in 2006 as a competitor to Apple’s iPod, Zune has done little to derail the iPod’s dominance. Microsoft faced an uphill battle given that iPod was established as the dominant music player in the market, but it is too easy to chalk the failure of Zune to being a late market entrant.

Portable music player is not the first category that Microsoft entered late; the company was far behind Nintendo and Sony entering the video game console category. It would seem that Microsoft faced a more daunting challenge taking on two entrenched brands, both with loyal customers. And, there were times when it looked like the Xbox could ultimately face a fate similar to the one Zune is staring at today.

However, Xbox has solidified itself as a force in video games. According to data from NPD Group for the period March 2010 to February 2011, Microsoft’s Xbox 360 had 38.3% share of the 18 million video game consoles sold. Microsoft’s share was just behind Nintendo Wii (38.6%) and Sony PlayStation 3 (23.1%). Microsoft’s market share jumped 12 percentage points in the past year, taking most of its gain from Nintendo (down 11.6 percentage points).

What is the difference between Zune and Xbox 360? Borrowing my favorite marketing book title, it is another case of “differentiate or die.” Zune has never successfully differentiated itself as being unique or superior to iPod. Granted, Microsoft faced an uphill battle given iPod’s icon status as a lifestyle brand. But, Apple successfully used marketing to get to that point. In contrast, marketing for Zune did not resonate with consumers.

Microsoft faced a similar uphill battle competing against Wii and PS3 yet has proven to be a formidable competitor in the video game category. The difference- Xbox has been able to differentiate itself from Wii and PS3. Its Kinect sensor, inspired by the motion-activated gaming experience of the Wii, has been popular with existing Xbox players and attracted new users. And, Xbox Live enhances the gaming experience by letting players connect with friends and fellow gaming enthusiasts online.

Being late to market is not a liability, it is an excuse. Failure to deliver a differentiated experience compared to the status quo is the real issue that dooms most failed products. “Differentiate or die” is not just a clever book title; it is a mantra by which marketers should live when it comes to developing product strategy.

Brand Passion: Quality over Quantity

Social media not only gives consumers a voice, but it also gives marketers a channel to listen to what customers and others have to say about their brands. And, methodologies have been developed to analyze social media conversations that can give insight into consumer sentiment toward brands. One example of monitoring online buzz is Netbase’s Brand Passion Index, which measures the volume of conversations and the favorability of consumers’ sentiment.

The most recent installment of the Brand Passion Index examined social media conversations about e-readers. The results are interesting given that the category is in its infancy, but in some ways the findings are hardly new. Apple iPad dominated the chatter about e-readers, coming up in more than 90% of conversations examined. Despite heavy volume of mentions, the iPad drew mixed feelings about its functionality and performance as an e-reader. In contrast, Amazon Kindle was mentioned in far fewer conversations but the affinity expressed for the brand reflected passion for the brand. Of all conversations about Kindle, 87% had positive comments about the brand. Among the favorable sentiments for Kindle were its singular functionality, performance, and ease of use.

Results of the Brand Passion Index provides a lay of the land as to consumers’ beliefs and attitudes toward e-reader brands, but a more fundamental tenet of branding surfaces, too. Why do Kindle users like the brand? It is not because of hype or glitz; they love the simplicity of the product. It has one function: an e-reader. The single focus on an exceptional reading experience is not a weakness compared to the multi-function iPad but an advantage. Kindle represents a simple brand promise and delivers in the eyes of a vast majority of Kindle users.

Simplicity is not a liability for a brand. When a strong and relevant point of difference is possessed, consumers are likely to see the value and, as in the case of Kindle, sing the praises of the brand’s value to others. In the case of e-readers, quality of brand capability trumps quantity of capabilities. Focus on the quality of brand benefits delivered; that is what customers want and that is what they enthusiastically share with others.

Marketing Daily – “Index: IPads Generate Chatter, Kindles Love”

Making a Case for Brand Positioning in Higher Education

Brand positioning is the strategy that stokes my fire for marketing more than any other. It is a powerful means of differentiating a brand from competitors and articulates brand meaning to consumers. My intensity on positioning is also fueled by dismay at the numerous brands that do not seem to appreciate the impact of positioning or simply have no clue how to develop a positioning strategy.

My industry, higher education, is not exempt from this dim view of the practice of brand positioning. Many branding campaigns either revolve around the institution itself (e.g., programs, buildings, history) or feature a “diverse” group of students engaged in mock interactions, presumably doing some learning. In other words, most higher education branding efforts are lousy! There are exceptions, with one of those being a current campaign at Purdue University.

Purdue’s current branding campaign, dubbed “Makers All,” sets out to differentiate Purdue’s programs in areas such as math, science, and technology, experiential learning, and international culture. The aim of the campaign is to communicate how students are impacted through their studies at Purdue. It is all about the customer and what the product does for them. “Makers All” is a refreshing change from the seemingly predictable tone of many Higher Ed marketing campaigns.

A brand’s position is based on a point of difference that is: 1) real and 2) relevant. Purdue’s “Makers All” campaign meets those criteria. What is most compelling about Purdue’s brand positioning is its connection to stakeholders. Students, prospective students, alumni, and employers all can appreciate the value the brand delivers.

Marketing Daily – “Purdue Differentiates Self in New Effort”

A Regimen for Brand Positioning Training

A distinct, consistent brand position is instrumental in achieving differentiation from competitors and scoring with customers. Articulating brand position is vital to the success of a positioning strategy. The audience for which the brand should be relevant must recognize and value the point of difference. To that end, the more ways brand position can be communicated, the greater chance that it sticks with the target market.

One of the most effective brand positioning strategies implemented in recent years has been done by Subway. Its “good for you” positioning in the quick service restaurant category has resulted in market share gains and more importantly, ownership of that brand association in consumers’ minds. The linchpin in Subway’s positioning strategy has been Jared Fogle, a Subway customer whose story of how regularly eating at Subway was part of his dramatic weight loss shone a light on the advantages of eating at Subway compared to burger and pizza fast-food restaurants. Jared’s story as an everyday guy who has benefited greatly from Subway’s products resonates with consumers.

Subway is not content to stand on the basic claim of “better for you,” even though it has been successful. In recent years, Subway has used top-tier athletes as endorsers including swimmer Michael Phelps and NASCAR driver Carl Edwards. Now, Subway and Jared have embarked on a marathon effort to promote the nutritional benefits of Subway, as in an association with the ING New York City Marathon. Jared is training to run in the race on November 7, and Subway has partnered with the event as the “Official Training Restaurant.”

The impact of Subway’s sponsorship of the ING New York City Marathon should be positive, but a greater long-term benefit to the brand stands to be realized. The sponsorship status of “official training restaurant” is one that Subway has bought the New England Patriots and exploring opportunities with other sports properties. The greatest opportunity to promote the status of “official training restaurant” seems to lie with the one audience that does not charge sponsorship rights fees: the consumer. A campaign that touts Subway as the official training restaurant of the everyday athlete (like Jared Fogle) would be a natural extension of high profile sponsorships.

Subway’s association with the NYC Marathon and staking the claim of “official training restaurant” demonstrates that work is never complete when it comes to brand positioning. Even when a brand’s position is solid as is the case with Subway, explore opportunities to drive home your brand’s distinctiveness in new ways.

Marketing Daily – “Subway Positions Itself as Athletes’ Training Choice”

Put Down Your Product to Attract Customers

No, the headline does not have a typo. Putting down your product can be a way to position your brand to attract new users. It is possible that customers think your product is too good for them, so changing its frame of reference to something bad, decadent, or unhealthy may resonate with some people.

Is this an unusual recommendation? I think so, and I am holding back laughter and skepticism as I gather these thoughts. Here is an example of what I mean, coming from a group called “A Bunch of Carrot Farmers.” In a campaign that launches Monday, baby carrots are positioned as an alternative to junk food, even bearing the tag line “eat ‘em like junk food.” An integrated campaign will use advertising, social media, and a website ( to spread the word. Even product packaging gets into the campaign as baby carrot packages resembling potato chip bags will appear in stores.

This campaign is a great illustration of using marketing communications to influence consumers’ thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Associating baby carrots with the indulgence of eating junk food challenges consumers to rethink how they perceive carrots as a snack. The messaging that has been developed for the campaign to this point is humorous and light hearted. Rather than a focus on “eat carrots because they are good for you,” the implied message is “eat carrots because they are fun!”

Will consumers be attracted to baby carrots because they are fun (not to mention better for you than junk food)? It is certainly an unexpected positioning, but one that might work on a product that is viewed as a commodity by many consumers. Shifting focus from a more virtuous “good for you” product to a more playful treat is a put down that could result in higher sales of baby carrots.

DM News – “Baby Carrot Growers Target Snackers with Integrated Effort”

Brand Positioning with Pop

A clearly defined and articulated brand position is a must, no way around it! Most industries are characterized by intense competition, maturing markets, and cautious consumers. Given these challenges, it is imperative to develop an identity that conveys a brand’s distinctive point of difference. Successful positioning can drive growth and build brand momentum; failure to send a consistent positioning message can make a brand stagnant and negatively impact brand image.

A great example of a brand that has used positioning to grow its business in a weak economy is Popeye’s, the quick service chicken restaurant. Popeye’s has outperformed the chicken QSR category overall for nine consecutive quarters. One of the keys to Popeye’s success has been a positioning strategy that connects the brand with its Louisiana roots. The culinary heritage of Louisiana is a meaningful connection for a restaurant brand, and Popeye’s menu and advertising campaigns have delivered consistently on the Louisiana theme. In contrast, category king KFC moved into grilled chicken and is unclear about what its point of difference is. Now, Popeye’s is going after KFC by touting its chicken beat KFC in taste tests.

Popeye’s has “outmarketed” KFC on multiple fronts. Its advertising is more likable, its social media efforts are more effective, and front line customer service is more consistent. All of these marketing tactics tie in with brand positioning. It is unrealistic for consumers to remember everything about your brand, but what is the one thing you want them to associate with you? For Popeye’s, that one thing is “Louisiana” and the positive food associations that go along with the state. When a position is real and relevant, as is the case for Popeye’s, brand positioning can be a powerful marketing asset.

Advertising Age – “Power of Louisiana, Social Media Help Popeye’s Stand Out in Chicken Fight”

Brand Position: Small and Proud of It

When is positioning a brand as a small fish in a big pond a desirable strategy? It is desirable when the association of being a small brand suggests authenticity and responsiveness. This strategy describes what Boston Beer is doing with its Samuel Adams brand. Sam Adams made its mark in the hypercompetitive U.S. beer market by positioning itself as a craft beer, a change of pace from mainstream brands such as Budweiser, Miller, and Coors. Now, a new commercial dubbed “Growing Up Small” makes the point that Samuel Adams has a minute 0.9% share of the domestic beer market.

Being perceived as a small brand can be advantageous. In the case of the U.S. beer market, the top brands are mainstream, corporate behemoths. A small beer brand has the potential to differentiate itself from the giant brands and be perceived as unique. The story of Samuel Adams is legendary in branding circles; company founder Jim Koch would take the product in his car to bars to share his brew with bartenders and patrons. Samuel Adams is built on a foundation of trust and being a genuine alternative to mass market beer. The challenge for a brand like Samuel Adams is to remain true to its “smallness” as it grows. Many companies have found it a struggle to operate like a small company as they expand.

Companies want to grow, expanding their market footprint while amassing profits. A strategy to focus on being small seems counter to the mission of many businesses. Acting like a small brand can pay off, though, because it forces marketers to maintain close access to customers and other stakeholders. If you cannot be the biggest brand in your industry, maybe there is a way to make being small pay off… just ask Samuel Adams.

Campbell’s Chunky Retires NFL Stars in Favor of the "Everyman"

Campbell Soup is moving away from a decade-old campaign for its Chunky soup brand that featured NFL players. In its place is a new campaign touting a reformulated product intended to be better tasting and healthier. While one cannot argue with the success of the NFL-themed campaign and the impact on sales, the time was right to reposition the brand in conjunction with the product makeover.

The weaknesses of the NFL campaign was that it missed a key group in the decision making process for meals: women. The everyman campaign should overcome that weakness. Also, older male audiences (35+) were more difficult to reach with the NFL campaign. The focus on the everyman seems to fit the current economic and cultural climate. The NFL campaign was great, but like the greatest gridiron stars retirement is inevitable. Sure, there is risk involved, but there is also risk involved in allowing a brand to stagnate.

Marketing Daily – “Campbell Position Shifts to ‘Healthy Everyman'”

Add Flexibility to Brand Position

Establishing a brand position is essential in today’s crowded marketplace. Brands clash with numerous competitors to persuade customers that their offering is the one that is better, superior, or otherwise the best solution. Positioning is a strategy to stake claim to a point of difference that can enable a brand to separate itself from the pack.

Brand positioning works… sometimes too well. A great example is Wal-Mart. It staked out a low price position and used it effectively. In recent years, Wal-Mart tried to shift perceptions to be viewed as more of a lifestyle brand and not all about low price. Wal-Mart was struggling to burst out of the low price box, but along came the recession and being perceived as great value was in vogue again.

Another brand that seems to be looking to move beyond its core positioning strategy is GEICO. Saving money was the point of difference GEICO used to entrench itself in the auto insurance market. More recently, the savings benefit has been complemented with an ease of use benefit (“so easy a caveman can do it”). Now, GEICO has bowed an ad campaign touting a 97% customer satisfaction rating. The ads deliver additional brand associations about GEICO. Persuading consumers that GEICO provides efficient claims service would serve to negate suggestions by competitors like Allstate and State Farm that low price insurance means one receives less service in return.

GEICO is being smart by giving its brand position some flexibility. It is not relegated to being a low price brand. Positions need to change in response to market conditions and consumer tastes as well as reflect competitive activity. GEICO appears to be well positioned to compete in the auto insurance category for years to come.

Marketing Daily – “GEICO Shifts Ad Focus from Savings to Service”