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Overcoming brand loyalty

September 22, 2010

Brands and brand loyalty are among the hardest things for companies to build. And the easiest things for them to destroy. Cue Gerald Ratner’s famous quote about some of his company’s products being “total crap” and others being “cheaper than an M&S sandwich and probably wouldn’t last as long” – and the subsequent nosedive in company performance.

But, assuming our competitors won’t help us by “doing a Ratner“, how can up and coming businesses overcome existing brand loyalty to carve new niches?

Traditionally, the answer lies in detailed marketing audits and substantial marketing plans. When companies undertake marketing audits, they are drawn to established management models such as the Boston (BCG) Box and the Ansoff Matrix to help them determine the products and markets with most potential. So far so good. But then the strategies often get bogged down in costs and analytics. Why?

A major problem for companies is that they choose to target the wrong people. The choose to go after Number 1 in the market or “try to become number 2 within 5 years”. This is problematic. It involves expensive brand and positioning exercises. It demands product based not on self but on the competitor’s range. It demands a drop of personality – indeed, a personality change.

Many companies over the years have adopted such approaches. The UK’s Rover Group never knew what it was trying to be from the moment it moved out of mass market and into competing with BMW. In the end, BMW took it over and then sold it again. Consumers didn’t know what the company stood for and it closed down. In the words of the famous BSA slogan for the Ariel 3 – the ultimate in corporate confusion, the brand position became: “here it is, whatever it is“.

Yet companies seeking to grow still talk about taking on the companies above them by mimicry and morphing. They are trying to grow by persuading the bigger company’s customers that their choice of product, their brand loyalty is flawed and would be better served by joining the in-comer. Think Google and Bing.

This is a big ask. Who as a customer wants to be accused of making the wrong choice? What is the financial cost of a strategy of chipping away at the edges of an incumbent brand? No, to overcome brand incumbents requires something different: inherent truth.

A business with inherent truth, like Morgan Cars for example, defines itself by its own offering. It appeals to consumers on the edges. It develops a following and grows on the back of that following. By creating demonstrable truth, customers come to it. And its customers stick with it – developing that other great marketing brand asset: word of mouth. Despite Sir John Harvey Jones’ famous advice to the company to change or die, it stuck to its guns and survived – because it had inherent truth.

This is what happened in Google’s case – and why people like Alta Vista and Yahoo are not the great search brands they were. And it can happen in your case. What’s your proposition? Why is it different to others? Are you attractive in a way to create a following? What is it about you that makes people want to join you (other than the fact that you exist and are purveying products)? Google didn’t take on the big boys as such, instead people on the edges came to Google and then the word spread.

In today’s searchable world, it is no enough to have a brand and a business. It’s more important to have a personality and a belief. Evident truths, revealed through effective communication and seamless delivery, are how to attract customers. When you create a position of credibility, your market will come to you. Overcoming existing brand loyalty and creating a new one. To you.

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