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Shaping Markets: Using Brand Strategy to Carve Out Your Niche
Companies are using brand strategy to step away from the competition and find their niche by staying true to their purpose. They are creating better products and driving conversations to better serve and understand the consumer.
by Michael J. Pallerino
Ten years ago, Dr. John McKeon, an emergency medicine physician turned medical entrepreneur, founded Allergy Standards Ltd. (ASL). He created the organization as an international standards and certification body for a wide range of indoor products – bedding, pillows, toys, paint, flooring, humidifiers, washing machines, cleaning products and cleaning services. Under McKeon’s watchful eye, ASL worked closely with brands like Dyson, Febreeze, Swiffer, Build-a-Bear, LG, 3M, Samsung, Lysol and Stanley Steemer to determine if their products were asthma and allergy friendly.
It was an interesting talking point, to say the least.
The goal of each brand, with the help of ASL’s rigorous testing procedures, was to earn the seal of approval of the certified asthma & allergy friendly™ program – a joint venture of ASL and the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America (AAFA).
One of the more interesting stories was that of Stanley Steemer, one of the most storied brands in carpet cleaning. According to the National Institutes of Health, effective allergen avoidance and control requires vacuuming once or twice a week. And if that wasn’t enough, AAFA recommends that every carpet be cleaned three to four times a year by a certified professional.
For Stanley Steemer, the edict could not have been any clearer. It had to reposition its branding strategy as a “carpet cleaner.” Already mired in competition with the “a man and his truck” competitors driving market values into a race to the bottom, Stanley Steemer needed a new approach.
With the help of McKeon, Stanley Steemer repositioned its efforts on a new trademarked tagline, “For a Cleaner & Healthier Home.” Moving its research and content push from a focus on traditional cleaning benefits, it pivoted its data and branding on health benefits. Thanks to its asthma & allergy friendly™ Certified App, consumers now shop by scanning barcodes to see which products are suitable for asthma and allergy sufferers.
“We spend an estimated 90 percent of our time indoors, where the EPA says air pollution can be four to five times more harmful than outdoors,” McKeon says. “You’ll find trigger factors in almost every room of the home, from dust mite allergens to formaldehyde. Unfortunately for consumers trying to avoid triggers, the terms hypoallergenic and non-allergenic are unregulated, ill-defined and practically meaningless. Allergy Standards responds with a rigorous, scientific asthma and allergy certification process for a wide range of consumer products and services.”
Within McKeon’s words was born a new approach that many brands are taking today – one that not only sees getting ahead of the curve, but also shaping the markets into what customers need.
Why wait, right?
According to Deloitte’s “Impact Project” study, more of today’s brands are able to break away from the pack to share some common principles in their approach. Chief among them is the idea that leading brands today start with their culture and build outward, resulting in better products, services and a more authentic reputation.
Take Siggi’s Dairy, an Icelandic yogurt brand that stayed true to its founder’s commitment to great quality and flavor over expanding at a pace that meant they may have to sacrifice on both. Siggi’s Dairy president Bart Adlam calls this philosophy “slow selling.”
“Brands that set a unique, values-led mission as their North Star are best set to own their categories and shape markets of the future,” says Amy Fuller, senior managing director, Global Brand at Deloitte. “In part, this is driven by the pioneering of their own paths, using proactive leadership to carve out a place in the world, instead of following the status quo.”
Take for example, Everlane, the online fashion retailer that is relentlessly committed to transparency when it comes to pricing and sourcing of its products. Fuller says the brand works to create meaningful relationships with suppliers, which not only allows them to offer high quality at low prices, but to also improve the lives of workers in markets all throughout Asia.
“The life of a thoughtful brand manager doesn’t lack for challenges,” Fuller says. “While many trends in behavior and consumption are familiar enough to serve as business clichés, we are always curious about some of the less obvious shifts at play.”
Owning Your Market
In his book, “Launching to Leading: How B2B Market Leaders Create Flashmobs, Marshal Parades, And Ignite Movements,” Ken Rutsky discusses how and why market leaders succeed in breaking through and leading in today’s crowded markets rather than following.
Rutsky, a B2B marketing consultant intent on helping his clients take leadership roles in market development, says that today’s brands don’t so much shape a market, as much as they shape their value to fit strategically into their customer’s world.
“By doing this, market leaders control the context of the market conversation,” Rutsky says. “They own the market by connecting their value to the life, challenges and opportunities of their customers. This is what I call, ‘leading or marshalling your market parade.’ As the cartoon character Pogo said, ‘If you want to be a leader, find a parade and get in front of it.’ Once we do this, we are rewarded with market leadership and our business becomes like a snowball rolling downhill. Everything gets easier. Referrals roll in. Leads convert faster and more frequently to business. Selling becomes easier.”
This strategy has worked for Zicam®, makers of Zicam® Cold Remedy. The multi-billion-dollar cold and flu category serves the needs of consumers who typically believe they can resolve these issues without treatment.
Zicam® is fundamentally different from most products in the market in that it’s designed to shorten the duration of the common cold, rather than just relieve the symptoms for four, six or 12 hours. Getting consumers to understand and appreciate this difference is critical.
Often working in concert with some of the biggest brands in the category, Zicam®’s value lies in its unique, cold-shortening proposition. To exacerbate consumer confusion by lining up with symptom relievers like Mucinex and NyQuil would mute its message and disappoint its consumer, says M’Lou Walker, CEO of Zicam®.
“We are different, and we need consumers to understand this,” Walker says. “Creating and shaping our own particular segment of the market enables us to make it clear to the consumer that he or she has the power to shorten a cold. We have found through our research that this message resonates most profoundly with consumers who want to live life to its fullest. And they want Zicam® to help them ‘get their better back.’”
Walker says the best way to shape a market is to start with a deep understanding of the consumer. Zicam® has spent a considerable amount of time researching consumers and listening to a variety of sources on a daily basis to be sure that it always keeps the needs of the consumer front and center. With a unique product proposition and keen understanding of the consumer, the tactics for shaping the market almost reveal themselves.
“We know how our consumer talks about suffering with a cold,” Walker says. “We know where he or she receives messages about products. We know how they shop and what they find bothersome. With that understanding, we’re able to create 360-degree communication vehicles that reach our consumer in their key need state. Whether it’s TV advertising, sampling in airports or engaging with the ColdSense app, the tactics stem from our understanding of our consumer and our products’ unique attributes.”
As Rutsky says, focus is everything. “Ambition and purpose are absolutely critical, but market leadership is a long journey of many small steps. Your purpose and mission help you define the destination, but focus and small steps get you there. Go fast and with purpose, and realize that most overnight business successes are really five- to 10-year journeys, as they move from flashmobs, to parades, to a movement.”