TPG brand strategy suggests that if your brand is an underdog you need to look at things more effectively to win. Competition is about finding paths to success thru identifying your customer, your markets, and identifying strategies that can impact your brands message with your potential customers. But perhaps most importantly…if your a brand underdog you cannot play the game identically to how the market leader plays. You have to be unique and tell your own brand story to win. Mathew Fenton has some great thoughts on this topic and how to differentiate for winning in this competitive marketplace.
Two Rules for Winning for Underdog Brands
The Branding Thing
Nov. 15, 2013
Most brands are underdogs. Probably yours.
It’s not just a matter of sales or share. If you have fewer resources than your competitors, you’re an underdog brand. You might have a smaller budget. Lower awareness. Less data. An outmanned sales team. Lower distribution (or distribution of lower quality). Or all of these, plus a few things I haven’t listed, you lucky devil.
Here’s a lesson I learned early in my career: “In business, as in boxing, it is stupid to attempt to trade punches with a stronger hitter.” You can’t try to replicate the approach of your largest competitors, but with fewer resources, and expect to somehow come out on top. That’s insanity. But for some reason, it happens all the time.
The beauty of business is that there’s more than one way to win. You not only get to choose your own path – you must.
In my client-side career, I repeatedly led brands to double-digit percentage growth despite being heavily out-resourced by my competitors. I did this by adhering to two key principles. And though situations vary, I’ve found that these principles hold pretty universally.
The two principles? Focus and creativity. Let’s discuss each, and let’s treat them as imperatives.
If your resources are comparatively limited, you must make those resources work harder if you want to win. And focused resources work much harder than unfocused ones.
So you must get focused. The only question is on exactly what.
As a friendly reminder, “focus” means to direct your attention at something specific. It may help to think in terms of sacrifice: What will you (knowingly, happily) ignore so that you can give full attention to your priorities?
To help get focused, ask questions like these:
>>> Do you believe (as most companies do) that you have a superior product or service? Great! To exactly whom? Who benefits the most from the difference that you’re bringing to the world?
>>> What are the characteristics of these consumers – demographics, psychographics, geographies, etc.?
>>> Why are they desirous of your offering? What’s the broader context into which you fit?
>>> With which consumers do you have a true right to win? Why?
>>> Which consumers are currently underserved? How could you improve their lives?
>>> Who are you passionate about serving? Whose lives would your team members like to improve?
All of these questions have to do with the Who – who you exist to serve. You need to be as specific as possible, and you need to know that person extremely well. Dozens of times, I’ve seen targets described as broadly as “women 18-45” – literally ranging from high school seniors to grandparents. If you can say, “We serve new mothers who are approaching 30,” you have considerably more focus, which pays dividends in many ways.
“But, Matthew,” I’m often asked, “won’t narrowing our focus cost us sales?” Not at all. It’s not like you’re refusing the business of people who don’t precisely fit your target. All you’re doing is placing your largest bets in the area of greatest potential reward. And, as a Russian proverb states, “If you chase two rabbits, you will catch neither.”
If you want to win, you need to gain maximum traction from your limited resources. The best way to do that is to focus on those who are best served by (and most desirous of) your offering.
If I know nothing else about you and your competitors, I can say this with certainty: What got them to where they are won’t get you to where you want to be.
Focus helps you to define your playing field – the “where to play.” The next question is “how to win.” This is where creativity comes in. Limited resources bring an unheralded benefit: They force you to get creative about your path to victory. This makes you a better marketer.
I’ve often advocated conceiving of your marketing mix in two “buckets” – what you do, and what you say – and that applies here. Get creative in both. Ask questions like:
>>> Exactly how will you serve? What value will you deliver through your offering, and at every point in the value chain?
>>> Now that you know your “who,” what is the best way to reach them? Where and when are they most receptive to your message and offering?
>>> If your business existed only to serve that consumer, what would you start, stop and continue doing?
>>> What are your strongest assets – product, service, technology, business model, operations? Where can you add difference?
>>> What is the system by which your competitors go to market? How can you improve upon, challenge or reinvent that system?
Ultimately, focus is about the Who and creativity is about the How. Clearly, these principles aren’t mutually independent – for instance, a bold choice in “what you do” begs the question of “who cares about that.” It’s an iterative thought process, and different combinations of Who and How will yield vastly different strategies.
Mini-Case Study: Focus and Creativity Applied
Let’s use Airheads candy, a brand I managed back in the ‘90s, as an example of these two principles in action.
The short version of the story is that we nearly tripled sales of Airheads in less than five years. We moved from spotty distribution to mass national. We launched what rapidly became the fastest-selling non-chocolate single in the country. (Birthed in 1994, the Airheads 6-bar pack can still be found near most cash registers today.) And we achieved this despite the fact that our largest competitors, Skittles and Starburst, each outspent us by over 20 to 1 in any given year.
We started by focusing on exactly who we were serving. Through a combination of traditional, secondary and kitchen-sink research, we identified our ideal consumer – the one that had the most energy for Airheads, and was also not the consumer our competitors were targeting. We isolated this consumer at a specific age and gender, drew a vivid picture of this child’s life and psychology, and kept that image front and center as we went to market. In doing so, we also made the decision to ignore Mom & Dad entirely – yes, they have buying and veto power when it comes to candy, but limited resources means you gotta make choices.
To reach our consumer, we got creative. It started with a unique, talented product, and the value of that cannot be understated. But we also made bold decisions based on our consumer’s needs. For instance, we competed at $.20 and $.89 price points, when conventional wisdom dictated that single bars of candy were $.50. We first focused on alternate distribution before going national – in part out of necessity, but more importantly, because those channels were ideal for reaching our consumer. And we passed on broadcast advertising for several years – again, in the face of conventional wisdom – in favor of targeted grassroots efforts.
It wasn’t a particularly complex strategy. But it was remarkably effective.
What Focus and Creativity Do For You
Focus and creativity bring you a number of benefits:
Increased Sales – There’s an immediate positive sales effect when you target those who need you most. There’s also a ripple effect, as true believers become word-of-mouth ambassadors.
Improved Margins – Creating meaningful difference should bring with it pricing power, which often translates to better margins.
Efficiency and Effectiveness – If you’re focused, you’re directing your limited resources in precise fashion, so that they build upon each other, instead of deploying them scattershot.
Meaningful Difference – If you’re really creative, you’ll devise a go-to-market system that your consumers appreciate, and that will be nearly impossible for your competitors to replicate.
You have focus and creativity when you can convincingly complete this sentence: “We serve (exactly whom) by delivering (exactly what).” Most brands can’t do that. Can you?
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