For decades, marketers have looked to gain an advantage for their brands by seeking better answers to a standard group of questions. Yet times have changed radically since these questions were enshrined in marketing theory, and breakthrough thinking in today’s environment must stem from overhauling such self-examination. Here, Helen Edwards poses seven key questions relevant for brands today, and considers the dangers of refusing to ask them
1 What must we stop doing to stay true to our values?
What lies behind the question The aim is alignment between the lofty things a brand says about itself in its corporate statements and brand strategies, and the way it behaves in practice.
Why it matters Bloggers and pressure groups give brands nowhere to hide; insincerity is swiftly exposed. Consumers are taking a more critical interest in the ethical and environmental standards of the brands they buy, and expect companies to be actively promoting their values in the wider community. Meanwhile, supply chains – a notorious Achilles heel – are becoming more complex and harder to police.
Which brands have made it work? Starbucks. After activists attacked the company for not living up to the tenets of good global citizenship proudly displayed in its stores, the coffee-shop chain made significant changes. Starbucks’ alleged exploitation of Third-World farmers was the bone of contention; it responded by reviewing its supply chain, clarifying the environmental and social criteria it asked of suppliers, and dropping those that did not agree to meet them or demand the same standards of those further back in the chain.
The perils of not asking it Being exposed as a phoney in an age where authenticity is all.
2 How can we make this product ‘worse’?
What lies behind the question This is a counter-intuitive question, but one entrepreneurs seem to ask instinctively. Its aim is to ask whether the product might be ‘over-designed’, as, for example, short-haul airlines were before Stelios Haji-Ioannou led the way with the budget model for easyJet. The process also examines how simplification in some areas could free up funds to innovate in others that are more valued by consumers.
Why it matters As more markets become saturated, brands with the courage and imagination to achieve breakthrough innovation will gain the advantage over their rivals.
Which brands have made it work? Accor Hotels’ Formule 1 budget concept was designed to ‘under-perform’ the competition. The average room size is smaller; receptions have limited opening hours; and there is no room service. The money saved has been spent on better soundproofing and more comfortable beds, ensuring a dramatic improvement in an area customers value – a good night’s sleep at a low price.
The perils of not asking it A competitor might pose it instead, leaving the brand to play catch-up, as the traditional airlines are now seeking to do against budget rivals.
3 How is our category disappointing people?
What lies behind the question Every category has its nod-and-a-wink deceits and illusions that conspire to work in favour of the business and against the consumer. Supermarkets, for example, position everyday items such as milk and eggs at the back of their stores to tempt consumers to pick up other items along the way that they may have had no intention of buying. The aim of the question is to expose and challenge category norms and gain a reputation as a customer champion.
Why it matters Speed and amplification of word-of-mouth in the digital age afford a huge advantage to brands prepared to be open, change and sacrifice to serve customers better.
Which brands have made it work? Office-supplies retailer Staples moved printer-ink and paper products – its equivalent of milk and eggs – from the back of the store to the front, as part of a raft of initiatives to make things easier for customers. The decision cost Staples money in the short term, but it has helped it regain the number-one slot in its sector.
The perils of not asking it The threat can come from outside the immediate competitive set. Virgin, for example, has made a habit of entering categories, from pensions to mobile phones, with the stated intention of ‘looking at the things that really annoy people and finding a better way of doing it’.
4 How can customers get closer to their ‘idealised self’?
What lies behind the question The concept comes from the theory of ‘possible selves’, put forward in a seminal 1986 paper by US psychologists Hazel Markus and Paula Nurius. They showed that people are highly motivated to move from their ‘actual self’ (everyday reality) to an ‘idealised self’ (a mental image of themselves at their best). Brands are used both practically and symbolically to help with that journey.
Why it matters The expression of personal identity has been a growing phenomenon since the 60s, as people seek to replace traditional sources of identity such as family, community and class. Brands are vital tools in what marketing academic Craig Thompson famously termed the ‘project of self’.
Which brands have made it work? Second Life, an online virtual world that offers users the chance to create a supercharged version of themselves. The site is managed, created and owned by its 2m residents. Some traditional brands, such as BMW and Nike, also display an intuitive grasp of the idealised self.
The perils of not asking it Many brands use research techniques such as ethnography to find out what their customers are like. If this leads to targeting the customers’ ‘actual self’, there is a danger that the brand may be rejected by them, since that is the very perception consumers are trying to alter.
5 What do we know but cannot seem to see?
What lies behind the question Most big consumer brands have been running quantitative customer panels for years. Typically the questionnaires remain constant, providing consistent benchmarks to measure progress. But as market dynamics move on, companies are often blind to the latest strategic issues buried within the mountains of data they are accumulating. Steady market-share figures, for example, might hide violent levels of churn within a discrete consumer segment. If it is spotted, this could be a strategic opportunity. Data is also collected by departments outside marketing, such as operations, which could be used to generate insight into how people are buying and using the brand. EPOS data, for example, was originally designed to inform decisions such as stock control, but savvy retailers have turned it into a revealing marketing tool.
Why it matters Markets and consumer habits are changing faster than ever. Brands have to know exactly what is going on within their market to keep pace with the competition, and that means getting the most from the data they have.
Which brands have made it work? Businesses prepared to work alongside a partner to challenge internal silo mentality and those that have the expertise to find their way through data and combine information from multiple databases. Tesco, through dunnhumby, and Philip Morris, through Vanguard Strategy, have improved their bottom lines, with initiatives based on a joined-up approach to analysing standard data.
The perils of not asking it The brand will have no awareness of untapped data and valuable information, which could be costly.
6 What can be learned from non-customers?
What lies behind the question Customer-centricity is the aim of every company with a strong marketing capability. However, a focus on customers can blind marketers to opportunities in the pool of people who don’t buy the brand or engage with the category, which is usually far bigger than those who do. Occasionally, it is non-customers who point the way to the category’s future. As business author Peter Drucker pointed out: ‘The first signs of fundamental change rarely appear within one’s own organisation or among one’s own customers.’
Why it matters Products or services co-designed by customers are already a feature of web-savvy brands. Engaging with non-customers could help to unleash a fresh source of insight and imagination.
Which brands have made it work? Instead of lamenting the fact that most under-25s do not buy a daily newspaper, The Guardian studied them and built its digital offer around the way they consume news. Through its policy of non-registration access combined with multiple links, GuardianUnlimited now attracts 13m unique users a month, compared with a daily readership of about 365,000 for the newspaper. In so doing, it has built a relationship with a pivotal but elusive cohort who newspapers have recently struggled to reach.
The perils of not asking it Ending up in charge of a non-brand.
7 What gives this brand the right to exist?
What lies behind the question In his 2006 book The Origin of Wealth, Eric D Beinhocker estimated that the number of products available to consumers in an advanced modern economy, using stock-keeping units as a measure, was in the tens of billions. What was once viewed as capitalism’s triumph of choice now resembles a bloated and obscene oversupply. The mood going forward will be for fewer, but better, brands.
Why it matters Growing awareness that every product is a potential drain on resources and has an environmental toll.
Which brands have made it work? This is the most infrequently asked question of all, but it will frame the future for brands. It is the ultimate reality check – is this brand doing something different and meaningful for consumers? Does it break down unfair category norms? Is it environmentally friendly and ethically sourced? Or is it just another me-too phoney taking up space and resources in an overburdened brand world?
The perils of not asking it Consumers will ask the question anyway, and if they don’t like the answer, they will desert the brand in droves.
The standard questions
The nuances might vary by sector, and fashions come and go, but these questions reflect the classical view of marketing fundamentals.
- Who are our customers?
- What do they think now?
- What would we like them to think?
- How does the brand make them feel?
- What are our values?
- What is our brand essence?
- Who are our heavy users?
- Who are our competitors?
- What is our competitive advantage?
- If this brand were a person, who would it be?
- What market are we actually in?
- What are the functional benefits?
- What are the emotional benefits?
- How can we re-segment the market?
- Should we perform a SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats) analysis?
Key questions by sector
In almost all sectors, as consumer choice increases, so the similarity between brands and their marketing also grows. To stand out, businesses must start to think differently. The key questions for brands to ask themselves are designed to help achieve this when viewed as a whole, but for each market, some will be more pertinent than others.
The Financial Services Authority estimates 29,000 firms operate in the sector, leaving consumers faced with more than 2000 brands vying for their attention and about 300 product types to pick their way through. Given recent issues surrounding the misselling of products in the industry, the most important question for financial brands is ‘how is our sector letting people down?’
Nearly 3m consumers will buy a car this year. With consumers having about 60 car marques and 200 models from which to choose, asking ‘how can we make this product worse?’ offers most help.
The weekly shop can be overwhelming; the typical supermarket stocks more than 30,000 lines, meaning consumers have to reject about 29,920 of them each week. Retailers and grocery brands could gain a better understanding of consumer desires by asking ‘what do we know but cannot seem to see?’
The average annual charitable donation made by the UK population is £150 each. More than 180,000 registered charities are vying for this money, ranging in scale and nature from Oxfam to Crash (Care, Rehabilitation and Aid for Sick Hedgehogs). Understanding that giving is a reflection of a person’s self could revolutionise charity marketing. The key question is ‘how can we take customers closer to their “idealised self”?’
There is nothing simple about staying beautiful. Consumers choose their beauty regime from more than 100 skincare brands, 118 perfumes and 200 bodycare brands, with up to 20 lines added to the mix every month. An ethical stance could become the tie-breaker when it comes to ultimate choice in this overcrowded market. If this is the case, the big question will be ‘what must we stop doing now in order to stay true to our values?’
This article was first published on Marketing