Are Marketing Certifications Worth It?

A very common question I receive from my readers is about my Professional Certified Marketer designation. More specifically, what kind of impact did it have on my professional career?

I think it’s time, many years since I received the certification, to answer this question publicly in more detail.

For those of you who don’t want to read the entire article, here is the short answer: personally, I haven’t had any professional benefit from becoming a PCM.

If anything, adding the designation to my signature generated more questions than recognition, which makes me question its popularity within the business community.

For those of you interested in getting a Marketing certification, I will try to answer the broader question: are marketing certifications worth it?

Marketing Certifications: Options Abound

There are plenty of options to obtain a Marketing certification, depending on your specific interest. It seems like every marketing organization, private company, blog and even apps are now issuing their own certification.

Here is a very short list:

Almost every certification requires an investment from you: your time, money, or both. Before you decide on what certification to pursue, ask yourself if going through the process is worth your effort.

Why Do Marketers Want to Get Certified?

In fields such as Accounting and Engineering certification is the entry ticket into management positions. Marketing does not employ such high standards: no certification is required to qualify for a specific Marketing job.

So why become certified?

Based on the feedback from my readers, the number one reason for wanting to pursue a marketing certification is building credibility with employers. In a field with no well-defined career path, a certification is hoped to be perceived as an independent endorsement of one’s Marketing knowledge and skills-but is this the case?

The answer is not easy and depends on personal circumstances. Regardless, some basic research is needed.

What Makes a Good Certification?

This is the first question a potential candidate should answer. Here are some questions that should guide your decision:

How selective is the process of getting certified? What kind of per-requirements does the certification have? Is registration open to everybody, regardless of the level of experience and education?  What is the level of commitment required in order to pass the final exam?

Generally speaking, reputable certifications tend to be very selective and have strict admission criteria and a considerable workload.

Is the business community aware of its existence? Awareness is the first step in building credibility. In order for any certification to be a difference maker it must be acknowledged by people in charge with recruiting in a particular field.

Every employer who want to hire for a senior accounting position requires a candidate with a Certified Professional Accountant (CPA) designation.

Based on my personal experience, employers and even marketing professionals are not even aware the PCM designation even exists. I believe there is more work to be done by the American Marketing Association in this regard.

What is its level of reputation? This is really what matters. Assuming decision makers are aware of its existing, does the certification add value to a resume? Reputation is built in time, through many generations of graduates who made a difference in their field.

If you decided to pursue a particular certification. there are a few things you can do to assess its merits.

Start with the institution issuing the certification. Usually it plays a huge role in establishing its credibility. A certification offered by Harvard University comes with a level of credibility already built in, versus a certification from an institution nobody’s heard of.

If the reason for getting certified is breaking into the marketing field, or getting a better job, study the  job postings for the position(s) you are targeting: is the certification listed as a must have, nice to have, or not listed at all ?

Also, take a look at the LinkedIn profiles of people already working in the same position your are targeting: how many of them are certified?

Finally, don’t be afraid to talk to recruiters about the value of the certification you are want to pursue. They can provide valuable and honest feedback on what employers are looking for.

What Really Matters to Employers

I would like to conclude with what I think really matters to employers looking to hire a marketing person.

The number one criteria that will get you closer to your dream job is work experience in the field- ideally, experience in the same industry your potential employers operates in. I know this causes a lot of frustration among candidates-but it’s a fact.

Secondly, I received many emails from my readers asking if they should pursue an MBA or the Professional Certified Marketer designation.

There is no doubt that post-secondary education still maters. A university degree will bring much more credibility to your resume than any Marketing certification.

And finally, the sad and ugly truth: who you know is more important than what you know. Your ability to network will help you get your dream job faster than getting certified and sending hundreds of applications. Many Ivy league school graduates admit that the value of attending a top university is not the quality of its courses, but the connections you make.

I don’t want to discourage you from pursuing a marketing certification. I am sure there are many marketing professionals who benefited greatly from being certified. Just do your due-diligence and make sure the certification you decide on is worth your effort.

How to Think Strategically

The greatest thing in this world is not so much where we stand as in what direction we are moving.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

“Strategy” is one of the most used and abused corporate buzzwords. People who use it often feel it adds an extra level of importance to their projects and actions.

While managers of all companies, big or small, are expected to show strategic leadership, many don’t really understand what that really means.

In fact, many businesses fail to capitalize on market opportunities for this exact reason: management’s lack of strategic thinking skills.

Strategy and Strategic Thinking

There should be nothing complicated and intimidating about strategy.

Strategy means having a goal, a plan and timeline to reach it, and the determination to stick to it.

Strategy means looking before immediate needs, towards how today’s actions will affect the “big picture”. It’s about saying no to today’s temptations that are not in line with “the plan”.

The benefits of strategic thinking go beyond the business world. In fact, it is a skill we can apply to almost all aspects of our daily lives.

You are actually using your strategic thinking skills more than you realize.

Let’s take those of us who have kids. We all want our kids to live a physically, mentally, and financially fulfilling life.

Achieving this very powerful goal is only possible without thinking strategically and having a plan.

If you let your kids watch TV or play video games all day long, the chances of them developing any interest in learning and being physically active are pretty slim.

To succeed, you need to plan and allocate time for reading and writing, playing outdoors, and meeting family and friends.

Furthermore, you also have to think of saving money for their university, starting when they are little. You also need to take them traveling so they discover the world and get a different perspective on life.

This is strategic thinking in action.

Tips On Improving Your Strategic Thinking Skills

In business, those who think strategically are able to anticipate market trends, predict new needs, and be first to develop products to satisfy them. They are able to be one step ahead of the competition, anticipate their moves and respond accordingly.

Here are some tips on how to improve your strategic thinking:

Have a Purpose

It sounds cliché, but there’s no way around it: the motivator behind thinking strategically is a powerful goal. In order words you need to know where you want to go, and be determined to get there.

In a famous speech at Stanford University, Steve Jobs said: “If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?” And whenever the answer has been “no” for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.”

Start With The End in Mind

At the beginning of each project ask yourself: what do I want to achieve? What is the desired result of my actions? Think of the ultimate goal, not the steps in between.

Let’s say you’ve been assigned to manage a website design project. Listing “mobile friendly and modern looking website” as project goal displays a lack of strategic thinking. From a strategic perspective, your end goal for this project should be to help you sell more products, or generate more leads.

Seek Expertise From Outside Your Industry

One of the requirements that frustrate job seekers who are looking for a career change is “must have industry experience”. Meaning, the employer is only interested in candidates who currently work for the competition.

The strategy of stealing people from competition is partly responsible for the lack of innovation and differentiation within most categories. People who move from company to company within the same industry want to do things the same way they’ve always done it.

Strategic thinkers seek and embrace perspectives that “don’t fit the mould”. In most cases these unique ideas come from people who are not directly involved in the industry.

Avoid Daily Distractions

One of the biggest challenges we face today is finding time to think. Technology made us more connected, but also more distracted. We are able to multitask, but for no meaningful purpose.

Strategy requires focus for long periods.

Our computer and digital devices are the principal source of distractions, and, in order to think strategically, we need to reduce them to a minimum. If you are looking for inspiration on how to focus more by avoiding distractions, this excellent post by Nir Eyal will certainly help.

Pursue an Interest in Liberal Arts Education

One way to get better at what we do is to learn as much as we can about our particular field. While this strategy will make you a specialist in your field, it will not necessarily improve your strategic thinking skills.

Liberal arts teach us the fundamental skills applicable to any profession: how to write effectively, how to get our points across, and how to nurture your creativity. All these are fundamental skills that will make you better regardless of your profession, and improve your strategic thinking.

Find Time to Think

“Busy” is the number one excuse for not getting important things done, one that is often hide the inability to manage one’s professional and personal lives. Being constantly “busy” is the number one enemy of strategic thinking.

How many times have you left the office at the end of a busy day feeling you haven’t accomplished anything meaningful?

We often focus on things and situations that are urgent, concrete, and need our immediate attention, and rarely find time to work on this that make the biggest impact on our long-term plans.

Strategic thinking requires a conscious effort to detach yourself from the daily routine and stop responding to every stimulus.

Embrace Tradeoffs

A great strategic mind understands that in order to get something, you need to give up something else. You can’t get fit and healthy without giving up on junk food. You can’t launch your small business without giving up on your personal time.

Every sound strategy requires a tradeoff, and unfortunately not many business leaders are willing to accept them.

Examples abound: Blackberry chasing the consumer market. Dell abandoning its simple business model: one product (computers), one distribution channel (online, directly to consumer). And so on.

Surround Yourself With People Smarter Than You

You’re probably familiar with the saying “If you are the smartest person in the room, then you are in the room.”

Narcissists usually make for terrible strategists, as they have a hard time accepting suggestions that make them feel weak, and love making every decision and following up on every action item.

And yet, the path to personal and professional growth is to listen and learn from others, and embrace their view even if it differs from yours.

Strategic thinking is a very powerful and sought-after skill acquired through training and experience.

Mastering it will have a huge impact on your personal and professional success. You will be able to respond to changes happening around you, improve your confidence and posses a valuable skill set you can apply in most professions.

The Single Word That Should Define Your Branding Strategy

Simple Brands-Netflix

There is plenty of advice on how build a brand. And yet, brand building is more complicated than ever, in part due to the competitive environment, but also the strategic decisions brand owners make.

A look back at some of the most successful brands shows a commonality that can be summarized in a single word: simplicity. Successful brands are simple brands.

Simple brands have most chances of being noticed, remembered and preferred.

Netflix allows you to access thousands of titles with a click of the mouse. Google uncluttered the screen of all the unnecessary information and presented us with a single obvious option: to search for the information we need.

Keeping it simple works.

Simple Brands Demystified

It’s not uncommon for Brand Managers to demand simplicity when developing a brand’s identity: clean and simple logo, modern and uncluttered website. Many brands stand out through visual simplicity.

Unfortunately, that’s as far as most companies are willing to go in building a simple brand. And it’s not enough.

A simple brand makes it easy for its customers to understand its purpose and interact with it.

A simple brand minimizes the decision making process.

A simple brand offers a great customer service experience.

A simple brand is honest.

How to Build a Simple Brand

Building a simple brand requires vision and strategic trade-offs. It requires saying “no” when saying “yes” means better short term sales and profits.

Here is what simple brands do:

  • simple brands communicate clearly in a language that its customers understand. Often times we refer to an offer as being “too good to be true”. Upon reading the fine print, we discover that indeed it is. That complicate our relationship with the brand, and we rank it low on our simplicity scale.
  • simple brands present information that is complete and easy to find. In case of eCommerce, the buying process has to be fast, simple and without unexpected surprises. Amazon built is otherwise complex business on a simple idea: allowing users to shop online fast, with a few clicks of the mouse (one-click ordering).
  • simple brands offer a product assortment that minimizes consumer choices, and makes products that are easy to use. Apple excels at both. Their huge success in the phone market was achieved with a single product: the iPhone. Steve Jobs was also keen on designing an interface that is so intuitive that even small kids can use.
  • simple brands welcome and makes communication with its customers easy. We all hate calling big telecom companies because we know how bad the experience is: waiting on hold, than being transferred from agent to agent until you find the right person who is competent enough to assist you.
  • simple brands offer a great experience. I used to think great customer service has become a point of parity, and not a differentiation strategy. However my real-life experiences tell me that in most categories there is still room to differentiate on making it easy for customers to deal with your brand.

All these elements on which a simple brand is built are interconnected. A narrow product line allows staff to be more knowledgeable, and answer questions quickly. A seamless online shopping experience generates more orders and less cart abandonment.

Staying Simple is Complicated

Unfortunately most brands start simple, but in time tend to complicate things. Growth and complexity seem to go hand in hand.

Brand and line extensions are the two most commonly used strategies to grow sales. Any new addition to the existing assortment is a step away from simplicity.

Even Apple, a brand that was revived by a return to simplicity, fell into the line extension trap after Steve Job’s disappearance.

A smaller and a bigger iPad, a bigger and a cheaper iPhone, an Apple TV that can be used to play games-all options that complicate the Apple brand, and don’t necessarily make it more successful (for the first time in a decade Apple predicted a decline in sales in the second quarter of 2016).

Stealing competitors’ positioning is another strategy that leads to confusion.

The Volvo brand has always been associated with safety. That’s the reason my wife and I decided to buy a Volvo-so our kids will be safe.

However, in recent years, Volvo’s communication strategy has shifted to promoting engine performance, including direct comparisons against BMW and Audi. At the same time, the German brands are highlighting the safety features of their vehicles. Confusing, isn’t it?

Simplicity Gets Noticed

The biggest advantage of a simple brand is its ability to compete against category giants.

Dollar Shave Club has managed to build a successful business competing against category giants such as Gillette by delivering simple (and funny) brand experience. The brand has been named the biggest disruptor in the US market by Siegel+Gale’s 2015 Global Brand Simplicity Index.

We all love simple brands that make our lives less complicated. Therefore, no matter what strategy you go for, your goal as a brand owner should always be to build a simple brand.

Cheers to simplicity!

A Guide to Understanding Your Brand’s Target Audiences

Brand's Target AudiencesImage credit: Joe the Goat Farmer on Flickr

Most Brand Managers understand the importance of having an accurate image of the brand’s target audiences. What’s often missed is how our marketing actions impact the quality of that audience.

We often judge the strength of a brand by the number of Facebook fans, Twitter followers and email subscribers. What we don’t know is if these fans are actually buying its products, and referring it to their friends, or are there to for freebees or discount coupons.

There are various ways to define audiences. One way is to segment potential customers based on hard data such as demographics, media usage, and purchase frequency. This is important, but we need to take the audience segmentation one step further.

Strategically, brand managers have to think of how consumers relate to brands and the categories they belong to. We all have brands we love, brands we hate, and brands that leave us indifferent.

We use our relationship with brands as a selection tool that help us decide among the multitude of competitive offerings.

Category First, Brand Second

Whenever a new brand enters our radar, we automatically link it to a category. That’s how we structure things in our minds, and cope with the multitude of choices available. For the Brand Manager, this is important for two reasons.

First, linking a brand to a less-crowded category (if the option exists) when establishing its  frame of reference gives the brand a chance to stand out.

Second, in the case of a new brand, it is important to create the category-brand link as early and clearly as possible to eliminate confusion and avoid building the wrong brand perceptions.

Once the category-brand relationship has been established, a brand’s audience consists of these four types of consumers:

Category Connoisseurs

These are people passionate about the category in general, with no loyalty to a particular brand. They enjoy trying, comparing and talking about products and are familiar with the vast majority of brands in the category.

Take wine connoisseurs for example: they are able to list distinct differences between Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon and lecture you for hours on why a bottle of wine is worth $1000, while another only $10.

These consumers are a great go-to resource for any brand in the category. A discussion with category connoisseurs will allow you to understand the category in much greater detail than any focus group will.

Your goal is to make this group aware of your brand, but not through advertising. No amount of advertising will convince these people your brand is worth considering.

The discovery has to happen as a result of their own research. All you can do is be ready to take advantage of the opportunity when it presents itself. Category connoisseurs are the greatest endorsement your brand can hope for.

Opportunists

If your marketing strategy focuses on offering freebees and steep price discounts your brand audience is probably dominated by opportunists.  Also known as “bargain hunters” and “professional contest enterers”, these consumers’ only reason for buying is a “good deal”, regardless of the brand.

These people a very price sensitive, and respond well to comparative pricing strategies that show how much they will save. They collect coupons and points, buy off promo flyers and use apps that show the lowest price for a particular product.

Advertising works well when targeting these consumers, but only when a “deal” is being offered. The long term effect of servicing the opportunists is shrinking margins and no brand loyalty.

Pragmatics

This is the third category that is not brand loyal, and only interact with the category when it’s absolutely necessary.

They are also not as price sensitive as the opportunists. Pragmatics make their buying decisions based on a combination of price, product characteristics, brand image, and convenience that is very difficult to per-determine.

The foundation of their buying decision is the need, not the deal. They are not early adapters and rarely choose brands based on the image they reflect.

Car buyers who are looking for a vehicle that will take them from point A to B fall into the pragmatics category. Those buyers don’t care that much about a brand that reflects their personality and status-what they value is the car’s reliability, gas mileage and warranty.

Another category that attracts a large number of pragmatics is air travel. We often choose our tickets based on a combination of objective factors such as price, flight time, number of stops and airline reviews.

Brand Loyalists

Brand loyalists are the most sought-after audience.

What brand doesn’t want to have customers who will not switch brands regardless of constant temptations from its competitors, and refer the brand to friends and family?

Study after study show that brand loyalty is on the decline, which is understandable. The main reason is increased competition, which makes differences between products indistinguishable.

Secondly, the brands themselves are responsible for the decrease in consumer loyalty, by not living up to their original promise.

Blackberry promised to be an innovator in mobile communication. The brand had developed a passionate and loyal following their keyboard phones, until competitors offered superior alternatives Blackberry was not able to match.

Every brand’s target audience consists of a mix of all four categories.

In an ideal world, the percentage of brand loyalists and category connoisseurs will greatly exceed the number of pragmatics, and opportunists. This is something we can control through our marketing strategy and actions:

  • If you are constantly communicating “limited time deals” and “price discounts” you will invariably attract a large number of opportunists.
  • If your strategy focuses on providing quality, informative, factually comparative information you will get on the radar of category connoisseurs and pragmatics.
  • An aspirational brand that has move beyond product features and benefits, and constantly deliver on its promise, has the best changes of building a loyal following.

Each of us belong to all four segments depending on how we relate to each category. I am a connoisseur when it comes to cars, pragmatic when it comes to cell phone plans, opportunist when it comes to cable TV, and brand loyalist when it comes to bikes.

So next time you review your marketing plan, ask yourself: what type of audience is a particular initiative most likely to attract: connoisseurs, opportunists, pragmatics or brand loyalists?

5 Favorite Things

5 things

If you had to name the 5 things you love most, what would your list look like?

This is the essence of the 5 Things project started by Belfast-based designer Paul McNally.

His goal is to “grow a global community of individuals encompassing all ages, locations and occupations; discovering, and documenting, the stories behind the things they choose as their five favorites. Hopefully, growing into an archive of interesting stories about humans and the things we love.”

I really liked his idea and decided to share with you my favorite 5 things:

My Family

My wife and two kids are the center of my universe. The decision to settle in a new country meant having no close family or friends around, which strengthened our relationship. We supported each other when times were bad and celebrated every small victory. We’re very proud of what we accomplished, but still don’t take anything for granted.

The Beach

The beach is my favorite relaxation spot. I know many associate Canada with cold and hockey, not sunny days and sandy beaches. While it’s true that Canadian winters can be cold, there are plenty of places to go and enjoy the summer.

Consider this: Canada has 60% of the world’s lakes (about 2 million) and 10% of the world’s forest. Plenty of options to spend quality time by the water.

Books

I’ve always loved reading. In high school I used to spend any money I had on books, rather than going to clubs or movies. To this day, I’ll choose a good book over any 5-star rated movie (I am so behind on movies). And although printed books are still my favorite (I love the smell of a new book), I do most of my reading these days on the iPad.

“Smart” Company

I believe the key to living a meaningful life is being surrounded by people smarter than you. Smart people challenge your perspective, and allow you to discover things you wouldn’t have known existed.

“If you are the smartest person in the room, then you are in the wrong room” is one of my guiding principle.

A Successful Project

Professionally, it’s very rewarding when things turn the way you predicted. Marketers face a lot of unknowns and uncertainty with every project they undertake. The reward comes when the brand you helped launched, or the campaign you designed from scratch delivered the expected results.

What are the 5 things you love most? Let me know in the Comments section below.

Do You Need 1-On-1 Marketing Advice? I am Here To Help

officehours

If you have a marketing question you think I can help you with, join me for a 10-minute free online meeting on Officehours.

Officehours is a service that allows people looking for advice to connect with specialists in various fields. November 6 will be my first time using the service, but from what I read it works great.

How to Book a Free Session With Me:

Create your profile on Officehours.

Click on my advisor profile.

If the session show as “Available” request it.

Next Available Session

I only have one session scheduled for now: November 6, at 12.15 PM Eastern Time (Toronto).

If the time of this session doesn’t work for you shoot me an email with a time that’s convenient for you. I will do my best to accommodate your request.

Using the service looks straightforward. All you need is a computer, speakers, microphone and a quiet place to talk.

More importantly, you need to plan your questions in advance so we can be as effective as possible. The call ends automatically after 10 minutes!

Some of you have been my readers for a long time. This is a chance to break the ice and have a 1-on-1 chat.

I look forward to “meeting” you.

Michael

Brand Positioning Basics: Establishing The Competitive Frame of Reference

Brand's Frame of Reference

When we come across a new brand, we try to make sense of it by using reference points to file it into our mental library.

We think of the category it fits in, competitive brands we already know in that category, the product/service being offered, and its price point.

This is how a brand’s frame of reference is created. Frames of reference help us deal with the overwhelming number of choices we have to make every day.

The frame of reference is a complex and multi-dimensional concept: it can be broad or narrow, shallow or deep. Choosing the right frame of reference for your brand has a direct impact on its positioning.

Competitive Frame of Reference: A Definition

A brand’s frame of reference is the context in which consumers view it. The first thing consumers will try to figure out is the category the brand belongs to.

In many instances, brand-category associations are straightforward:

Pepsi belongs to the carbonated soft drink category.

Lululemon is a brand of yoga wear.

Changing the frame of reference for these established brands leads to brand stretching, which rarely produces the desired outcomes. However, that doesn’t stop Management from trying:

Pepsi recently announced Pepsi 1, the company’s first Android-based smart phone that will retail in China for approximately $205.

pepsi-phone

Lululemon also signaled its intention to move into the liquor business “one day (and can) at a time” with Curiosity Lager.

curiosity-lagerImage source

You don’t have to be a marketing genius to realize these endeavors that stretch the brand to its limits have very little chances of making a meaningful impact against established category players.

Hence the importance of choosing the most convenient frame of reference for your brand and sticking to it.

Choosing the Ideal Frame of Reference

The ideal time to decide on a brand’s frame of reference is at the time of launch.

The more well-known the brand becomes, the more difficult its context.

Here are some things that should help you make the right decision:

Choose a competitive frame of reference that reduces the number of brands competing for attention. You can achieve this by narrowing your focus so you don’t compete head to head with established players for consumer’s attention.

When I decided to start an online store specialized in original paintings, I noticed that my big competitors were framing their business as an “online art gallery”. “Art” is a very generic word, which was reflected in their broad offering: paintings (originals and prints), photography, sculpture, digital media.

In contrast, I decided to build my brand around a much narrower frame of reference that can be summarized in three words:  “original paintings online“. That is, I want people to associate Brush Treasures with “paintings”, and not the more generic “art”.

Do not choose technology as a frame of reference. Sooner or later technology becomes obsolete. The photography industry is the perfect example.

What do most people associate Kodak with? Film photography. The brand never managed to escape this strong association when it was obvious that digital photography would replace film, although Kodak launched the first digital camera in 1975.

The frame of reference should support your brand positioning. Your brand’s frame of reference is the foundation of its positioning. It will determine the points of parity the brand has to meet in order to be considered a legitimate player, and highlight opportunities to differentiate.

How Sony Used A Smart Frame of Reference To Influence Consumers’ Expectations

Aibo Sony's AIBO. Photo Credit: aptx4869 on Flickr In 1999 Sony launched the world’s first mass-marketed robot: AIBO.

Most people would associate robots with things such as “flawless operation” and “the ability to perform repetitive tasks with the highest degree of accuracy”. In addition, typical robots are not able to replicate human emotions.

Interestingly enough, Sony didn’t frame AIBO as a robot. Instead, AIBO was positioned as an human companion, an entertaining and cute pet (AIBO means companion in Japanese).

Unlike the typical robots, AIBO could express emotions. It was able to wag its tail when patted on the head, and could be trained by the owners to play different sports.

In the early stages, AIBO had many flaws, and could act unexpectedly sometimes, to the amusement of the owners. Instead of complaining about its flaws (as you would expect when dealing with the robot) owners regarded AIBO’s disobedience as part of its pet character.

Sony’s strategy illustrates the power of choosing a convenient frame of reference in shaping consumers’ expectations.

By positioning AIBO as a pet, Sony was able to overcome obvious technological flaws. AIBO “the pet” offered what customers were expecting from a human companion: affection and unpredictable behavior.

The Shortcut To Establishing the Frame of Reference

The brand name is the most direct way to signal the context in which the brand should be judged.

If Apple wanted people to see the Apple Watch as a fitness device they should have named it differently. By naming the product Apple Watch, the frame of reference was already established.

Based solely on its name and the online reviews, I decided the Apple Watch is not for me (although I am very passionate about watches). In my mind the most basic function of a watch is to tell the time in an instant, without going dark when it thinks you are not using it.

Final Thoughts

Competitive frames of reference can be narrow and deep, or shallow and broad. The latter offers brands more short term opportunities, but the former offers more substantial profits and the opportunity to dominate a category.

6 Common Causes of Brand Failures

Image Credit:  Nicholas Eckhart on Flickr

The news earlier in 2015 that Mexx is closing all its Canadian stores came as a huge disappointment for my family.

Disappointment because The Dutch retail chain was our favorite place to shop for clothes: the quality was good, and prices reasonable.

Surprise because Mexx stores were some of the busiest places at the malls around us.

The Mexx brand is just one of the few that are struggling, or have disappeared completely. Sony also announced the closing of all its Canadian stores, while US retail giant Target completely exited the Canadian market, less than 2 years after launch.

It’s hard to believe that brands that once defined a category have now vanished or struggle mightily: Nortel, Blockbuster, Nokia (cellphone business), Blackberry.

It’s like saying that Apple will not be around in the next five years.

The first question we ask ourselves as marketers is: what happened? How can a brand that was once so strong and dominant, become so irrelevant?

A closer look reveals some common causes of brand failures. Here are some of the most “popular”, ranked in the order of “fix-ability”, starting with situations that can be easily corrected, and ending with the ones that are almost impossible to recover from.

Building a Product, Not a Brand

There are many companies that offer an exceptional product but fail to build the brand around it. The Management team that runs these companies invariably believes in the “we offer a great product at the right price” selling strategy.

Reality has proven the best product doesn’t always win.

From a product perspective, Fage qualifies as the authentic Greek yogurt on the US market: the brand is owned by the same company that enjoys the leading market position in Greece. However the undisputed US market leader is Chobani, a brand launched 9 years after the Fage brand.

Lack of Brand Communication

This is another common scenario: the marketing budget for building the brand is not nearly enough to achieve anything meaningful. In reality, management believes, just like in the above scenario, that marketing is purely ego-building and a waste of money, and what really sells is product and price.

Consistent communication of the brand message is key to getting into the minds of consumers. Brands that are not on the radar do not exist. In order to become a player, the brand communication budget has to be on par with the competitive brands you are trying to displace.

Being Stuck in the Middle

A brand is “stuck in the middle” when it holds no defined positioning in the marketplace. These brands usually struggle to remain profitable and eventually die.

Gap was launched in 1969 and quickly became synonym with cool, affordable American-style apparel.

In recent years Gap is struggling to define its identity, both internally (stuck between Old Navy and Banana Republic), and externally, facing competition from more focused brands such as H & M and Zara.

Brand Cannibalization

Changes in the marketplace require bold strategic moves that affect a company’s brand portfolio. Such moves include launching new brands to fight newly emerged competition, or meant to capture a new market segment.

These strategic moves have to be carefully planned in order to avoid cannibalization of the existing brand(s).

Consider a common scenario: an established premium brand decides to launch a lower cost alternative to capture a new market segment consisting of consumers who currently cannot afford it. Many companies choose the shortest way to market: strip the existing product of some of its premium features, and market it under a very similar brand name, that would create an obvious connection with the premium brand.

Great strategy, at least on paper. In reality, these companies run the risk of alienating their core customers who currently pay a premium for the premium brand.

In order to avoid cannibalization, enough separation has to exist between the two brands in order to keep them both relevant to appealing to different consumer groups.

Not Keeping Up With The Competition

Competitive advantages are very difficult to preserve.

In her excellent book “Different: Escaping the Competitive Heard“, Harvard Business School Professor  Youngme Moon talks about “augmentation-by-addition”: differentiated features are quickly copied by competition and become points of parity, something all consumers expect to get.

Brand survival requires constant innovation.

The first mistake companies such as Blackberry, and Blockbuster made is not acknowledging that the market is changing. Blackberry believed for a long time that the touchscreen phone is just a marketing fad. Management also failed to see the evolution of the smartphone from a communication device to a full entertainment hub.

Not being able to keep up with the competition (even if you invented the category) invariably leads to brand failure, especially in fast chancing categories, where it’s almost impossible to catch up.

Purposely Deceiving Customers

At the time of writing this article (September 2015) the news just broke that Volkswagen has installed software in its cars equipped with TDI engines that activated emission controls only when being tested. Otherwise, the cars were exceeding the pollution levels by as much as 35 times.

Many car brands managed to survive crises caused by manufacturing defects. However, choosing to deceive your customers on purpose in order to gain market share causes irreparable damage.

No amount of money and PR can save a brand that has lost that much of its reputation. I just don’t see how Volkswagen, a brand with a tiny 2% market share in the highly competitive auto market can maintain its North American presence.

There are usually a combination of factors that lead to brand failures. The situations above highlight the challenges and responsibilities brand managers have in making sure that brand survives and stays relevant long-term.

A Simple Guide to Writing an Effective Brand Positioning Statement

When it comes to business strategy, many companies tend to be reactive, rather than proactive. Managers of all sorts are quick to deviate from the strategic plan for short-term gains, rather than staying the course and pursuing initiatives that match the brand’s strategic objectives.

Writing a compelling brand positioning statement is often the solution to the internal strategic struggles every company faces to some extent.

Brand Positioning Versus Brand Positioning Statement

Before we dive deeper into how to write a brand positioning statement it is important to understand the distinction between brand positioning and brand positioning statement.

Brand positioning is the “mental angle” your brand owns in the marketplace. It is what your brand is known for, which might be different from what you wished for.

Brand positioning is greatly influenced by external factors such consumers’ direct interactions, feedback from friends, or the stuff they read on the internet.

A strong brand positioning can be summarized in a few words:

Google=search

Trivago=hotel search

Southwest Airlines=low-cost air travel

Brand positioning statement serves as an internal guide that illustrates, in a paragraph or two, how your brand wants to be perceived in the marketplace. Its purpose is to summarize what the brand is all about to the company employees and outside partners, and serve as foundation for every marketing decision.

Brand positioning is what you are. The brand positioning statement is want you want to be.

How to Write A Branding Positioning Statement

An effective brand positioning statement (sometimes called “mission statement”) includes your target audience, the brand’s differentiation point(s), frame of reference, and elements that support your differentiation claim. Here is the template suggested by Cornell University:

For [insert Target Market], the [insert Brand] is the [insert Point of Differentiation] among all [insert Frame of Reference] because [insert Reason to Believe].

Let’s explore the four elements in more detail.

The brand’s target audience consists of all market segments that benefit from it. If your brand is sold through intermediaries, such as distributors, dealers, affiliates, then the brand positioning statement has to be relevant to them as well.

Brand differentiation explains how your brand differs from the competition. Some experts recommend making the brand promise part of the BPS. My preference is to explain how the brand is different, rather than listing a promise any other brand can make.

The frame of reference defines the category your brand competes in. This is a very powerful tool as it can help position your brand as a number one brand in a new category, rather than a new entrant into an established one. More on establishing your brand’s frame of reference in another article.

The arguments that support your brand claim are pretty straightforward. Any brand has to provide compelling and credible reasons why its target customers should believe in it.

Can a Brand Have More Than One Brand Positioning Statement?

A brand that targets multiple market segments needs to have a brand positioning statements for each.

Let’s think of the brand positioning statements for a company that markets Eco-friendly household cleaning products through a network of specialized distributors. Here are two possible BPS suggestions for the two segments:

BPS for Distributors:

For our distribution partners, [The brand] is the source of higher profits, by providing the most attractive partner discounts and eye-catching point-of-sale displays that will help move product and increase distributor revenue.

BPS For Consumers

For those who believe in the need to protect our environment, the brand is the number choice for Eco-friendly cleaning products because of its low price and immediate availability.

One brand, two distinctive segments and needs, two positioning statements.

Writing and Effective Positioning Statement: a 4-Point Checklist

It’s about the brand, not the product. Focusing on what makes a product different might be a short-lived statement, as products evolve, change or become obsolete. Additionally, a brand might expand beyond one product category, which will make the current BPS obsolete. A BPS should always allow room for growth.

It’s specific, yet comprehensive. An effective BPS is explicit, thus eliminating confusion. Its purpose is to be relevant to all departments, not only Sales and Marketing. You also want to avoid using clichés such as “we want to be the best at what we do”, or “we offer superior service”.

It’s consumer-focused.  Instead of focusing on what you can do well as a company, focus on the unique benefit your brand provides to consumers.

It provides motivation, focus and direction. This is probably the number one benefit of having a brand positioning statement: allowing the company to focus on what’s important, and discount the rest.

An effective brand positioning statement should bring everybody inside the organization on the same page and pulling in the same direction.

I will leave with two examples from an established brand (IKEA) and a relatively new market entrant (WARBY PARKER) that I hope will inspire you:

IKEA:

At IKEA our vision is to create a better everyday life for the many people. Our business idea supports this vision by offering a wide range of well-designed, functional home furnishing products at prices so low that as many people as possible will be able to afford them.

WARBY PARKER:

Warby Parker was founded with a rebellious spirit and a lofty objective: to offer designer eyewear at a revolutionary price, while leading the way for socially conscious businesses.

Branding Inspiration: How A New Business Can Enter and Succeed in a Highly Competitive Category

PS_Harrys_Identity_02

This marks the start of  the “Branding Inspiration” series of articles that will focus on newly launched brands that have become successful in super competitive categories.

I hope these success stories will prove that it’s not impossible to enter and carve a niche  in mature categories with the right differentiation strategy. These brands will also provide you with needed inspiration and motivation for our own branding initiatives.

And who knows, this reading might bring some of you closer to starting your own business.

Meet Harry’s

Classic marketing books teach us that if you are not number 1 or 2 in a category, it’s better to invent a new category. Easier said than done.

Most start-ups are launched with the mission of redefining existing markets rather than creating new ones. That’s the strategy Andy Katz-Mayfield and Jeff Rider, the founders of Harry’s, decided to pursue in the shaving industry.

Carving a niche in a market dominated by giants such as Gillette and Schick looks like mission impossible. However today’s featured brand did just that.

I found out about Harry’s by accident. One day, while visiting a friend, I noticed an unfamiliar presence beside the bathroom sink: a Harry’s razor kit.

What grabbed my attention was the simple and elegant handle design, and the minimalist yet effective branding. A startling contrast versus the brands commonly present in Schick and Gillette products that have a plastic and mass produced look and feel.

Harry’s is online retailer and manufacturer of razors and accompanying shaving products launched in March 2013. Since 2014 their blades are made in their own factory in Germany.

I am a Gillette user and never thought of switching brands. But Harry’s makes it difficult for me to resist the temptation to try their products.

So I decided to put on my Marketer hat and take a closer look at the things that make their offer so compelling:

A Clearly-Defined Value Proposition

Harry's Value Proposition

A new brand has to make a simple and bold statement, in its attempt to change the category’s status quo.

Harry’s brand positioning strategy is bold and clear: better quality and less-expensive shaving products versus the existing players’ overpriced alternatives.

It is bold because in makes a direct comparison with its big competitors, by positioning their offer as inferior and outdated.

It is clear because it uses plain language to explain a benefit many people can relate to.

Solid Reasons To Believe

Step number two in any brand positioning exercise is to support your claim with sufficient arguments to make it believable. Harry’s provides at least three good ones.

Quality products at low prices. This sounds like a cliché but Harry’s really delivers on this promise: their products look great and are indeed inexpensive. The compelling stories and excellent product photography work hand in hand to reinforce this claim.

Distribution channel. Online selling is almost immediately associated with lower prices, that become possible with the elimination of the middleman, and lower overhead costs. I am not sure if Harry’s is a profitable business, but their distribution model is a perfect justification for their lower prices claim.

Country of origin. The “high-quality product” perception is reinforced by linking the production of their blades to the country that actually owns the “high-quality” attribute in the mind of most people: Germany. A perfect example of how the country of origin can be used to support a brand claim.

Narrow Product Offering

Narrow product offering

Harry’s product offering consists of only 2 standard shaving kits, one special edition kit and a range of refills. For comparison, Gillette lists 36 products in just the razors category.

Having a lean product offering brings many benefits to a startup:

-it makes it easier to own a word (in this case “razors”) in people’s minds

-the offering can be quickly presented and explained

-it is possible to become the product expert by servicing the market exceptionally well

-it allows for a more efficient allocation of resources, instead of dividing the efforts across multiple lines.

Outstanding Shopping Experience

The uncluttered design, compelling stories, and outstanding photography on Harry’s work together to create a compelling case for trying Harry’s products.

Each product page is very informative and eliminates all potential barriers to purchase.

Product Page

The outstanding packaging not only reinforces the quality claim but also gives consumers a great visual of what they expect to have delivered to their homes:

Harry's Packaging

Communication Strategy That Builds Credibility

No flashy advertising, to huge sponsorship deals. No cute kids, dogs and cats, no supermodels or famous athletes.

Harry’s marketing strategy seem to be focused on building trust in the brand through old-fashion PR, which is the quickest way to build trust.

In the two years since the brand was launched, Harry’s has been featured by important mainstream media outlets: ForbesNew York TimesCNBCFinancial Post.

Their PPC campaign reinforce the same (simple) message.

Harry PPC Message

You can argue that Harry’s was built with backing from important financial investors. And I agree: raising $122 million is not something you or me can (easily) do.

However, to put this number into perspective, Gillette invested 800 million in worldwide advertising alone in 2011.

In my next article I will review another inspirational brand that was started while the owner worked a 9-5 job. Sounds more like you and me? Stayed tuned for details.