It’s clear to everyone by now that the auto industry is in the painful throes of explosive, disruptive change. Even the near future of the sector is difficult to predict. There are so many new forces impacting the industry, no one can yet say what a future car business will look like, or whether there will be one at all. The climate crisis is the primary “driver” of the change. It’s clear that auto emissions, worldwide, must be brought down. That leads to efforts to build fleets of electric vehicles even though it’s uncertain if the market for so many EVs now exists. It also inspires experimentation with hydrogen propulsion and other clean energy options. But that’s just the beginning. Safety concerns lead to experiments with much better-performing self-driving vehicles. When all this is perfected, one won’t need to own a personal vehicle. It will be cheaper, easier – and cleaner – to simply engage with a public transportation infrastructure, greatly reducing the number of vehicles sold each year. Where will that leave the car companies? And is this what the market wants? Artificial intelligence, nanotechnology, blockchain, internet of things, 5G networks – all these exciting new technologies are pushing and accelerating the transformation. The breadth and depth of this kind of market-transforming upheaval is sure to have profound effects on the auto brands – the shared relationships between the car companies and their markets. The big media companies are grappling with this kind of large-scale disruption too. What about where you work? Think your industry is immune? Of course not. You’re probably also already seeing the writing on the wall.
Open space. White space. Unclaimed territory. You often hear these metaphors when discussions of brand positioning are on the table. Obviously, no one is talking about actual geographic positions here. We’re talking about positions in the market’s collective mind, otherwise known as mindshare. But, mindshare alone, as valuable as it may be, is not enough. It only means that the market knows who you are. That’s it. If Oprah Winfrey only had mindshare, it would just mean we know she’s a celebrity. But there’s so much more to know about her. She’s a media mogul, she’s a self-made billionaire, she’s universally beloved, etc. A business wants to be known, true. But a modicum of fame is not enough to build a powerful brand. You have to be known for something. Like Oprah is known for something. Like Malala Yousafzai is known for something. Like Elizabeth Taylor is known for something. We experience all three of these famous women in unique and memorable ways. We wouldn’t want any one of them to be more like another. That’s how a business needs to be perceived. That leads to a powerful brand.
I was recently invited to submit an outline for a publication entitled “5 things you need to do to create a believable, trusted and beloved brand”. The invitation quoted Seth Godin as defining a brand as “an implicit promise”. I think Mr. Godin has it about right – mmm, almost. And that's the problem with these kinds of queries. Everyone will be basing their submissions on a different definition of brand. There is no definition of "brand" that is universally accepted. But the whole exercise sounds like fun so I’m going to submit anyway. My five steps are at the end of this article. But we’ll have to start with my definition of what a brand is because that’s what informs my five points. I tell all my clients to memorize these six words: “A brand is a promise kept.” I tell them that’s the most profitable way that they could define the term when thinking about their brands. You have to know what your brand promise is. You have to communicate that promise to your market. And you have to keep your promise. To see how it works, let’s first parse the sentence.
Every business (or product, service, campaign, event, project, nonprofit, whatever) that needs to be marketed, has to do what it can to minimize competition and maximize income. This requires the organization in question to position itself properly within the vast landscape of brands that are out there. The world is full of other brands, competing, commanding attention, cluttering up the minds of buyers. In such a world, no brand can succeed for long if it is not positioned in a way that makes it most attractive to its best prospective customers while also putting its competition at a disadvantage. Proper positioning takes some effort. No one person can be in command of all the competing narratives in the world, so you can’t just trust your instincts alone. Every marketable asset needs a formal brand positioning statement.
The question comes up all the time. A widget manufacturer faces stiff competition. It struggles to find a way to differentiate its offerings. How can it find its market when all the customers seem to prefer the other guys? The answer lies in the old, baseball adage, “Hit it where they ain’t.” The competition can’t be all things to all people. They can’t be everywhere at once. Somewhere there’s an opening that this widget builder can exploit. It could be that, somewhere, there’s a portion of the market that is underserved by the big guys. That sector would welcome a new player that specializes in their concerns. Or it could be the challenger business builds its widgets with a distinguishing feature, or by using a new process or because of a unique history – or something. The differentiator is there. It always is. The trick is to sleuth it out.
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