Social media, SEO, and mobile dominate today’s marketing discussion, with good reason. New media technologies require new thinking to capitalize on them. But, like radio and TV before them, new media are merely enablers, not solutions.
The single greatest determinant of marketing success is, and has always been, brand strategy.
Which customer niche should we target? Who are the key competitors we need to differentiate ourselves from? How can we effectively position ourselves as something better? If you don’t get the answers to these types of questions right, communications are powerless, and the media channel irrelevant. So while it’s important to leverage media technology intelligently, brand strategy is the primary determinant of marketing success – and often organizational success.
This post shares stories of organizations I’ve worked with over the course of my career who have developed bold brand strategies to distinguish themselves, gain competitive advantage, and drive sustained growth. I use the word “bold” because it’s not easy to overcome the temptation to play it safe and be all things to all people. These organizations understood that representing something truly meaningful to some ultimately attracts attention, builds momentum, and earns a brand identity that ultimately appeals to all.
#1: Whole Foods Market
By the early 2000’s, Whole Foods had pretty much maxed out market share in the “organic and natural” customer segment, but were pursuing growth. Research indicated that 80% of first-time Whole Foods shoppers became loyal customers, and “Foodies” represented a highly prized customer segment with the most untapped growth potential. So the question was how to appeal to this segment more effectively and inspire Foodies to try shopping at Whole Foods for the first time. The answer was a shift in brand strategy. They de-emphasized the organic/natural messaging, and developed a new brand strategy targeting Foodies (without alienating the “earthy-crunchies”) captured in the tagline “Passionately Picky”. The strategy was expressed in an ad campaign focused on getting Foodies excited about a specific food item.
Each ad told the story of a single item that exemplified Whole Foods’ “passionate pickiness” in scouring the globe for the best foods in the world. The micro-success of this campaign was the consistent selling out of the items advertised in the campaign. The far more important macro-success was a) driving immediate first-time visits by Foodies who sought the specific product advertised, and b) delivering the message to the broader Foodie audience that Whole Foods shares their passion for the best foods, not just the most organic/natural foods. Extraordinary growth was achieved. And it all came down to rethinking brand strategy.
While their facilities services industry competitors sold healthy and environmentally-friendly cleaning products/procedures as an afterthought, UNICCO systematized these services into a branded offering, “UNICCO GreenClean™”. We armed UNICCO salespeople with briefcase-sized GreenClean™ kits that visually communicated UNICCO’s commitment. Print ads targeting facilities services managers showcased consistent GreenClean™ identity and messaging. Free marketing materials were developed and offered to UNICCO’s commercial real estate customers to help them attract their tenants with green messaging, and to education customers to help them recruit their students by communicating healthy buildings to parents.
The result, in a fairly commoditized industry typically driven by the lowest bid? An immediate spike in market share and profitability. UNICCO took a risk by hanging their hat on green cleaning, but they anticipated correctly that customers preferring standard cleaning services would assume that if UNICCO could effectively deliver cutting edge green services, they could knock standard services out of the park. All growth. No attrition. The GreenClean™ brand strategy was a winner.
#3: Chat University
This pre-Web2.0 client started a business selling basic, out-of-the box online chat software into the university market. Their competitors were offering custom-built chat software with a much wider range of features. How would they compete? Universities felt compelled to communicate with prospective students using current technology, but they were intimidated by the learning curve. With this understanding of the target market, Chat U developed a brand strategy focused squarely on intensive customer support and education.
We developed a nationwide direct mail campaign offering free online chat demos to prospects. Customers were given binders and phone support walking them through how to use the software, how to schedule and promote chat sessions, and how to interact with students during a chat. Customer service staff were hired not for their tech skills, but rather on the basis of their experience working inside recruiting departments and truly understanding the customers’ mentality. The result? In less than five years, Chat U signed up over 400 universities, dominated the market, and sold for millions to the world’s leading education software conglomerate…all that despite inferior software. Best product? Nope. Best brand strategy and execution? Yup.
#4: Foundry Sports Medicine and Fitness
A doctor’s office is a doctor’s office, but not for the founder of this sports medicine group. This client invested millions in rebuilding an old industrial building into a luxury, full-service orthopedic medical center – Palladian windows, exposed brick and beam, mahogany cafe waiting room with widescreen TV’s and wireless internet, you name it. Spared no expense. While the reputation of the doctors and physical therapists is traditionally the only basis of competition in this field, we established a brand strategy for this client centered on the first-class, inspiring experience offered to patients, right from their first orthopedic visit. We equipped sales staff with high-impact brochures that brought the quality look/feel of the facility into sales meetings. We organized an open-house to drive first-hand exposure with referring doctors and other influencers.
The result was exponential growth and expansion right from the get-go. Within two years, their greatest challenge was hiring doctors and staff quickly enough to meet patient demand.
The takeaway: a smart brand strategy is a proven game changer.
Hopefully these examples help inspire some thoughts about how a shift in brand strategy could drive growth for your organization. If you are already another shining example of the power of brand strategy, we encourage you to share your story here with the Setter community!