“Differentiate or die”, the term coined by Jack Trout, has for years been the mantra of marketing experts, who believe that a brand has a better chance of achieving commercial success when its strategy is based on a unique proposition.
Surprisingly, having analysed strategies of hundreds of brands for BrandStruck, we have come to an unscientific conclusion that the best and biggest brands do not have a differentiating positioning. Rather, their brand strategies sound almost generic (read, for example, our article on the positioning of the most valuable brands in the world). It’s the relevance of their proposition and its flawless execution which makes them so successful.
There is also a growing body of rigorous scientific research (mostly conducted by the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute) proving that differentiation not only fails to help big brands, but also, in some cases, it might even hinder their performance (unlike distinctiveness, which is almost always good).
It needs to be stressed that this statement is only true for big brands. Managing an established brand with great recognition is one thing. Launching a new product, service or business, as well as building its brand awareness from scratch, is an entirely different story. That is why a lot of new and “young” brands are based on the challenger philosophy. By being more daring, fun, cheeky or rebellious, challenger brands attempt to do things differently and stand out from the crowd in an effort to be noticed and remembered.
It is interesting what happens when challenger brands succeed. Once a rebel brand becomes popular among its often too narrowly defined target audience, it will soon recognize that, if it wants to grow further (and with ever-reliable encouragement from investors, it will most likely want to grow), it needs to start talking to people it hasn’t spoken to before.
This realization leads then to a painful, but often unavoidable, process of diluting the brand’s unique proposition for the sake of being more widely acceptable and becoming a brand “for everybody”. The inconvenience experienced during this stage is rewarded with commercial success.
Ultimately, the most successful rebel brands become exactly what they have been fighting – one of the market leaders.
There are many brands which have experienced the entire journey from being a provocative rebel or a narrowly defined niche brand to becoming one of the market leaders in their respective categories. We have already written on this blog about some of them (e.g., Apple, Uber and Instagram); but, today, we want to focus on three brands, which are still in the process of maturing out of their “rebel” roots: Salesforce, Dollar Shave Club and Lyft.
Although from the very beginning Salesforce’s main offering was enterprise software delivered to organizations via the Internet, the company’s initial positioning was that of a rebel brand with a mission defined as “End of Software”. Salesforce wanted to emphasize the fact that the SAAS model and the new cloud-based delivery method marked a new era in the industry and the end of software as understood so far. The company’s first advertising idea based on that mission was a “no software” sign used in all Salesforce marketing materials; at that time the company was even using a 1-800-NO-SOFTWARE telephone number.
As Salesforce matured and became one of the leading enterprise software providers focusing on CRM, it had to adjust its positioning to the new market reality. Currently it defines itself as the Customer Success Platform (integrated CRM) helping companies grow their business by “increasing sales, reaching more customers, and improving service” and promotes four values: trust, growth, innovation and equality. It’s no longer provocative, but it is now one of the 100 most valuable brands in the world.
Dollar Shave Club was originally positioned as a rebel brand on a mission to fix what’s broken in the razor category. At a rational level, the brand was built on two functional benefits: the low price and the convenience of the subscription service. Regarding its emotional image, Dollar Shave Club wanted above all to promote the attribute of relatability. Former CMO of Dollar Shave Club explained how it differentiated the brand when compared to more traditional competitors: “We do use irreverence and humour as a really critical mechanism to deliver that relatability. That’s what we really aim to do from a tonality standpoint that I think is different than how brands have talked to guys in the past.”
More recently, the brand’s messaging started resembling that of Gillette as the company began focussing on attracting a much wider audience than before. To sustain its dynamic growth, DSC started building a global presence and entering new segments within the personal care and beauty category (hair styling, oral care, cologne and even “butt wipes”). It has also, to a certain degree, adjusted its key messages and tone of voice to be more inclusive. It is less concerned about its “rebel credentials” and concentrates instead on communicating more generic benefits of the entire personal care category (“We’re on a mission to help our Members look, feel, and shave like a million pounds – without the hassle. Because when you look and feel your best, you can be your best.”)
Lyft was set up as a true sharing economy brand. Its positioning is centered around the philosophy of carsharing, in which the main goal is to decrease the number of vehicles on the roads and thus minimise their environmental impact by maximising the usage of every car seat. Lyft is about catching a ride with somebody who is going in the same direction as you. When compared to Uber, its biggest competitor, Lyft has always been much more informal and fun.
After a few years, the company adjusted its strategy as it realised that the informal approach was off-putting to some people. In order to gain more new, mainstream users, Lyft changed a few things to make the brand’s experience more mature. First of all, it transformed its famous symbol: a big furry pink moustache attached to cars’ front bumpers was turned into a much smaller “glowstache” and then replaced with Amp, a connected device, which changes colours to make Lyft cars easily identifiable. The company began communicating convenience rather than friendliness and fun and started encouraging a new, less informal code of behaviour (no fist bumping or chats, no pressure to sit in the front seat, if you don’t want to). Lyft co-founder and CEO, Logan Green, commented on these changes: “Our ambition — to bring people together and revamp how transportation works — is so big, we can’t be limited to the part of the market that wanted to be social in the front seat.”
Salesforce, Dollar Shave Club and Lyft are three examples of challenger brands which have successfully adjusted their positioning in order to attract a wider audience and increase their market share.
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Magda Adamska is the founder of BrandStruck.
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