Submitted by Linda Johnson
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About 95% of what executives in competing companies do is pretty much the same all around. This is good management. If you are CEO'ing a wireless communication services provider, you strive to put up an advanced technological infrastructure with a promising future, cool end-user phones, other devices and accessories, a great service system and competitive prices. Well, this is precisely where your competitors put their efforts as well. The 5% (give or take) that you do differently constitutes your strategy. The CEO of Southwest Airlines, the revolutionary domestic American airline, most of the time does exactly what her colleagues do. But her firm offers Ticketless travel, and serves meals in the airport during waits, and not on the plane.
The Strategy Is the Brand
Doing well what you are supposed to be doing - is a prerequisite for competing. It is definitely not a strategy. Being better - is a deserving effort, yet it is not a strategy either, especially not in the long run. How, then, are you supposed to compete? Well, you could offer your clients more than what your competition offers, for a higher price, for the same price, for a lower price, or - offer them less value for a lower price. All of these options can give you an edge, but usually not for long.
You could also offer something different than what your competition does. You can cater to a need not formerly satisfied by your category. Nokia, for example, did just that when it decided to treat cellphones as fashion accessories and later as entertainment devices. Even this approach could not be considered as an insurance policy. There are no insurance policies in the world of business. But, if it is difficult or impossible to imitate, or it is something not likely to be imitated by your competition - then you might just have created for yourself a mini-monopoly of your own. Well, this is surely an accomplishment that should not be underestimated in a competitive market.
So, what really is a strategy? By definition, a strategy is the way by which you are planning to obtain your goals. In a competitive environment, your goal is that the consumer will prefer you to your competition. That is why the strategy is, in fact, the way by which you plan to achieve an advantage over your rivals - in the eyes of your consumers. Almost always, preference can be achieved only by differentiation, by either doing something other than what your competitors are doing or by doing things in a markedly dissimilar manner.
There are three types of differentiations and only one of them constitutes a strategy (or strategic differentiation). The transient differentiation is often achieved by promotional activities, such as a big sale. The circumstantial differentiation consists of things like a historical monopoly, or some kind of personal connection between the consumer and someone in the firm, or a convenient store location etc'. However, the differentiation we want to focus on is the strategic differentiation, such that provides a long lasting, circumstance-crossing advantage.
Is differentiation absolutely necessary? In any case where the consumer must choose between options - the answer is definitely yes. Why? Because the consumer chooses between alternatives on the basis of the differences as he or she perceives. Zoom-in on that sentence for a second. Do not fall into the most common trap of all: the consumer makes choices according to his perception of differences between alternatives, and not on the basis of what he values most in a product of that kind.
Competitive strategy is always a simultaneous answer to two questions.
The first one is: in which consumer group do you identify a potential for buying your product? By 'group' I do not mean necessarily shared socio-economic and demographic characteristics or even a similarity in personality or life style. What I mean is that they have in common some factor, enabling you to make them an offer, which will be more attractive to them than the options they already have, or at least a refreshingly new one. The second question is: what could you offer them that would help you realize that potential?
The goal is not to reach a consensus, nor is it to be OK by everyone. Experience has taught us that the key is to make a specific group of consumers, even a small one, think that you are irreplaceable. They will act as your success engine, even amongst consumers who are not as definite in their attitudes. BMW fans do not believe that Mercedes is a bad car; it's just that it is not a BMW. For them, Mercedes is simply incomparable to BMW. That's how Apple fans feel about IBM.
What has all this to do with branding? A brand is the consumer's anticipation for a unique and defined experience, or for a certain unique benefit obtainable solely through consuming/owning a specific product/service manufactured/offered by a specific company. Thus, the anticipation from a trip to Paris would be to experience a romantic vacation. The anticipation from Ikea would be "state of the art design at a reasonable price". It is fair to say that a brand is really a brand only when there exists, among its consumers, such anticipation. If this anticipation is both exclusive and attractive, you might say that it is a strong brand. A familiar name or logo - do not suffice to make for a strong brand.
This consumer anticipation is evoked and upheld by the marketer's consistent execution of a business concept providing the consumer with a unique benefit or with a unique/novel way to deliver a benefit. This concept is the brand strategy, its promise and its commitment to its target consumers. The "third place", the neighborhood place you frequent in between work and home offered by Starbucks - is a brand strategy. But, wait a minute! It is also the differentiation - the competitive strategy itself! These ARE the 5% that executives do differently in order to gain an advantage. This is why the brand IS the strategy. Or more accurately, the brand strategy is the translation of the competitive strategy into a language of promises made to the consumer.
The brand's role in the realm of marketing has changed dramatically during the past decade. Today, brand building no longer constitutes a mere manipulation of the consumer's perceptions and desires, but it is a creation of a system that on the one-hand makes promises and arouses anticipations, while on the other-hand it delivers and realizes the promises that it makes.
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