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Cherchez le Creneau – Search for the Hole

June 18, 2012
Cover of Positioning book by Ries and Trout

Positioning – the battle for your mind. Brand perception crucial in a crowded market place – especially for follower brands.

I was reading “Positioning“, the classic text by Al Ries and Jack Trout this morning and was intrigued by their chapter on Positioning of a Follower. A key problem for marketers is to establish market presence for a “follower” product (the bane of most marketers’ lives) and here they cite a French phrase, cherchez le creneau. Search for the hole. It’s as relevant to today’s marketers as it was ten years ago. Let’s look more closely…

Getting customer attention in a crowded market place

It’s common for many marketers to go for the biggest splash to get the best response. This, of course, is high risk. To compete with the market’s number one product on their terms is to enter a world of comparison shopping and, ultimately, to compete on price. Usually the lowest. Almost inevitably the incumbent product wins; they remain number one and the follower product remains number two (or worse, gets outflanked by a new follower and is reduced to number three).

In searching for the hole, positioning focuses instead on niche. But what is the niche? Why should a customer choose a book by a particular publisher or author? Why should one motorcycle be better than another? Why should customers beat a path to one digital holiday platform over another? And why should customers come back? The creneau – the hole - represents a key opportunity for brand perception.

To develop brand perception requires clarity – and consistency – of thinking. Years ago, the UK’s Rover Cars had a reputation for innovation and quality. Then the brand changed to the “luxury” arm of British Leyland. Then it became Austin-Rover. Then all Austins and Rovers became Rovers. Then they positioned themselves against BMW. Then they were sold to BMW. And then sold back to management. And then they went bust. If a company is not consistent, customers will desert them.

Brand – perception – strategy relies on consistency, vision and delivery to succeed. What are you? What do you make? What do you believe? What is your commitment to your future vision? In today’s fickle world, it comes as no surprise to see that many overseas companies are choosing to buy British legacy brands because of the inherent value in their positioning over many years: Jaguar; Cadbury; Terry’s; Bentley; Mini; Bass; Record Tools the list goes on… Consistency delivers value for customers and owners year after year.

 What creneau? Other options for defining position

Ries and Trout cite a few examples showing possibilities for perception and positioning of brands seeking exposure in crowded markets. These include, size, sex, filling capacity at the factory and even re-inventing the wheel (a white whisky which didn’t sell). Let’s look at some of these approaches.

Interesting angles

Whether it is selling a VW Beetle as “Think Small” in a US car market populated by dinosaurs, or Wonderbra’sHello Boys” (recently voted “Most Iconic Advert Image of All Time” by Outdoor Media Centre), brands can exploit a niche by a logical – an emotionally logical – position.

This approach requires a strong head and a willingness to live the brand beyond the campaign launch. In the case of Hello Boys, this campaign fundamentally altered the perception of the Wonderbra brand and is still ranked high in brand recall listings.

Brand strategy built around a newly-stated position must be carefully thought through to ensure delivery. If the sizzle is not matched by the steak, negative reaction will follow; today’s social media savvy consumers will quickly kill off a brand built on false positioning.

Factory filling

In the past, companies who needed to fill space in the production line ignored customers at their peril. The case of the Ford Edsel is seen as a classic example of a solution in search of a problem yet even today – for example in the publishing business – this process still goes on as companies seek to fill production gaps to manage volume against predicted sales.

The result is much the same; products designed for purposes other than genuine demand will go the way of others like them. The “creneau” of the production line gap should not be seen as a hole worth filling unless customers come first.

Innovation

Of course, innovation is a great driver. Many brands – for example Apple – have delivered credibility through innovation and have become major players rather than follower brands. But innovation must have a purpose and perceived value. Who now can remember the Austin Allegro “quartic”  (square) steering wheel or the Vanden Plas Maestro talking dashboard? Both were gimmicks rather than value-adds. True innovation must, like all brand creativity, exhibit a sense of vision, emotion and accreted success. 

Getting attention, though, is one thing. Living up to the promise is another; failure to deliver will create our old friend post-purchase cognitive dissonance. This is often the case for companies which try to use price as a brand asset without fully understanding the impact of pricing strategy in the perception battlefield.

Price-based positioning

High price is seen as an indicator of quality, low price as an indicator of affordability (but probably a product that will simply “do the job”).  Yet price too must match other elements. You cannot simply hike a price and not deliver quality.

The technique with high price is to ensure that the quality is perceived to be higher than the price charged. Rolls-Royce have mastered this price tactic. So have BMW (not surprising given that BMW owns both factories…).

Equally, if you price low, you run the risk of appearing cheap. Cheap products attract only price buyers and the risk here is in developing sufficient volume (at high marketing cost) to deliver some form of return. Price wars too are an additional risk; existing volume players in the low price sector will almost certainly have muscle to force a low price competitor to the wall.

The key at all levels of the price spectrum is perception of value. Yet it is not necessary to go over the top in developing and delivering perceived quality.

Aesthetic values in themselves can create perceptions beyond reality. Publishers know that high quality paper and board can substantially increase the price and perceived value of a book. Artists know that paper stock of prints and reproductions , and limited editions, fundamentally affect value perception. A wooden handle on a gardening implement develops a sense of a link with the past – all of which adds to perceived value. And price.

So it is that price is an essential part of the armoury for helping brands to position themselves in arenas already dominated by other players. The message here is that brand/product delivery must do enough to create an emotional engagement which renders the price irrelevant to the market being targeted.

The product for “Everyman”

Ries and Trout argue convincingly that attempting to define a position by creating a brand for everyman is a flawed decision. I would concur for this reason: few buyers want to be seen to be like everyone else. Brands are about aspiration and vision, about promise and delivery. Not about invisibility and the banal.

Crucially, brands appeal to certain social groups; a brand designed to appeal to everyone needs to be well thought out to have any chance of delivery. Ries and Trout say:

 “Today… you have to have a position. There are too many competitors out there. You can’t win by not making enemies, by being everything to everybody … in today’s competitive environment you have to go out and make friends, carve out a specific niche in the market, even if you lose a few (friends) in the process”.

What creneau?

So the question for brands trying to position themselves in a market already dominated by another is which position to adopt – and, when the decision is made, to be committed to the position. This is not easy. Brand is not easy. It is not something you can simply tag on for the season. It is about recognition, stability and promise time and again. This is the brand challenge for businesses competing in a cut-throat market place.

Yet I will conclude this post with an endearing advertisement for TE Gallagher & Sons’ Pickles found on the back of a bus ticket tucked away in a personal copy of the 1947 municipal guide to Warrington, my home town. In its musty silence it speaks volumes for how brand managers have – and must continue – to compete for a space in the customer’s mind. Read these words and, as they say back there in Lancashire, “think on“:

“If you cannot obtain TEG PICKLES in your district, LEAVE the district”.

Nice one.

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