The water cooler moment, that time when people paused to discuss the previous night's entertainment moments that they had shared while apart, is drying up. Mainstream media is far from dead, but it's equally clear that our collective dictated culture is giving way to a more fragmented colloquial culture that takes place online in social networks, discussion fora and blogs. The passivity of the viewer has been transformed into much more active and interactive participation in a variety of locations, both real and virtual. Marketers have to recognise this and change the way they think about their brands.
In the beginning, product choices were limited and unique selling propositions had some meaning. Offerings could be differentiated in a reductionist product market space. Brands assimilated in the consumers’ mind as a result of multiple advertising impressions across a small number of communication channels. Advertising flourished.
But by the late 1980s, branding emerged as an active verb due to an obsession with putting intangible assets like brand equity onto the balance sheet for the purposes of financial engineering. Brand extensions proliferated almost as much as branding consultancies and consumers became saturated with choices and multiple marketing messages. The writing was on the wall (and anywhere else it could be plastered).
Today, it’s almost counter-productive to brand actively because, unless you’re offering something seriously remarkable, you’re probably competing in a crowded field of “ok-ness”. The customer who crucially is now their own aggregator is assailed by noise emanating from every marketing department and probably ignores all of your entreaties. Advertising is imploding.
Marketing is no longer about segmenting customers and offering a differentiated product. It’s a case of segmenting yourself from all the other providers of related offerings and allowing customers to gravitate to you rather than the alternatives. In the world of the product market space, consumers were passive and producers could actively target them. But now the roles are reversed. It’s a buyer’s market, customers are active and it is twenty-first century branding that will have to be passive.
1) Let The Customers Decide
They are the aggregators and will decide what you are offering them and what they believe. Therein lies the branding myth – it is not faux emotional associations that customers want. It is whatever they think a product actually delivers that generates real emotional attachments. Customers sense implicitly that their needs are not unique and know that there is a category devoted to meeting those needs. There may however be a new, more optimal way to meet them, (as defined by the customer) and it is your job to provide that.
2) You're Not Them
This is your positioning statement. Some people may like you for the depth of your expertise, some for the simplicity of your solution, some for your value for money, some for your humour. For differing reasons, they feel they’re getting a good deal from you and will keep returning until you betray that trust. So don’t push a single source of attribute differentiation. All you can say is we’re in the same business as these other guys, but we're not them.
3) Stay Positive
When you say you’re not them, you implicitly ask the customer to question the competition’s expensively-made claims. But don’t explicitly attack them. Negative advertising is despised and useless because you won’t be able to convince the consumer that they don’t like what they’re using. While genuine dissatisfaction with the competition may become your most powerful marketing aid, you want customers to gravitate to you because they decide you are the best at meeting their needs.
4) Be Open, Honest and Authentic
Being passive doesn’t involve false modesty. Enable customers to get to know everything they want. Utilise new media and imagination to go where the potential customers are. Interact with them and become part of their colloquial culture. Don’t try to sell them stuff and certainly don’t try to sell them stuff that isn’t what they want. Become your category’s equivalent of the trusted family butcher or local mechanic - somebody with a unique area of expertise coupled with trustworthiness. Seed your crowd. Brand passively.