Have you ever realised that sometimes there is that one advert, on TV or otherwise, that really grabs your attention? Did you ever buy anything because of the brand name and what it represents? Marketing strategies, and therefore branding identity and graphic design strategies behind them, are all based around these principles – what do people want/need – and to then create a system which makes these products or services irresistible.

We will here be looking at how brands can distinguish themselves from their competition by providing something which tips the consumer balance in their favour, creating the necessity for the consumer to acquire the product or use the service in establishing a wanted lifestyle. We are all familiar how Harley Davidson, Tesla, Apple, to name a few, have created niche products that define a lifestyle. The most important of achieving is that they have managed to stand out in the crowd and developed things have cultural meaning and are used for cultural ends. The latter vary from the meanings associated with particular items, to statement making about identity and aspiration, as well as the vehicle for enabling particular relationships with other people.

By extension, brands need to harness the evocative power of things and services.

The Harley-Davidson lifestyle
Marketplace Clutter

We live in a world which is fast (and getting faster) and a world of more. So much ‘more’ that sometimes we tend to have a cluttered life (Marie Kondo please!). This is not only true for our daily lives but it also for companies that are faced with competition from too many products, services, features, messages, meanings or media.

marketplace clutter
Forms of Marketplace Clutter; Source: Zag, Marty Neumeier (2007)

There is too much of everything. And the knee-jerk reaction is to fight clutter with more clutter! How is a brand, therefore, to break through all of this, and be the one that sticks to people’s mind, while it inadvertently buildings mental walls to block out all the clutter. Probably for the first time in history, the most powerful barriers to brand competition are not controlled by companies, but by customers. So how is a brand going to stand out?

“Probably for the first time in history, the most powerful barriers to brand competition are not controlled by companies, but by customers. So how is a brand going to stand out?”

Zig Zag

“The new rule: When everybody zigs, zag”, says Marty Neumeier in his 2007 publication ‘Zag’. Differentiation is the art of standing out from the competition. But in a setting of clutter, you need more than differentiation – you need radical differentiation. A brand needs to find its niche rather than continuing to plough through a saturated marketplace. A brand needs to create an uncontested market space and make the competition irrelevant. To develop this and deliver profits may take years rather than months. You cannot be the leader by following the leader.

But what does different mean? At what cost should things be different? Should they be different even at the expense of quality? Here again therefore there is relationship between good and different which needs to be taken into account when change is proposed.

good vs different
Relationship between good and different in the positioning within the marketplace (Neumeier, 2007)

Without going into too much detail of this graph, brands need to position themselves in the top right hand corner – Good & Different; ‘Not Good’ is not an option; ‘Good but Not Different’ falls within the same old saturated market. If a product or service positions itself as good and different, its innovation will shine through in a saturated market. The biggest winner at this will not be the brand that is first into the marketplace, but the one that is first into people’s minds. This strategy applies to both new start-ups as well as to well-established companies who would like to boost their momentum and reposition their brand in the marketplace.

The question now is “How does one zag?”. Finding open market space may be a counterintuitive skill, as it is easier to notice what is on the market rather than that which is not. Our recommendation is to uncover a consumer need. This will only be possible by understanding what your client is after, where he would like to position himself in society through using an innovative product or service, and hence what lifestyle he/she would like to have.

“The biggest winner at this will not be the brand that is first into the marketplace, but the one that is first into people’s minds.”

Understanding your clients and their culture

The methodology of knowing what makes the clients’ eyes shine and use this in marketing is not new. The hardest part of radical differentiation is the creation of a new product or service through the formation of a ‘bridge to hopes and ideals’ (as framed by McCracken, 1988). This bridge makes up for the difference between the ideal which the client wants and their actual state – a bridge to the desired state of being.

In understanding the ultimate user of your product or service, you also need to understand the cultural context in which they were brought up and the one that they now operate in. As INTEL anthropologist Genevieve Bell says, you must understand what people care about in order do business. In her work intersecting cultural practice and technological development this was especially important in the introduction of new products in various countries. In her research she focusses about how culture in Europe and Asia differs from the US in terms of how people use technology and where; linking and appreciating what the customer wants within the culture they are in.

Dr Genevieve Bell on culture and technology


So, while building a company culture that thrives on radical differentiation through putting the interests of its clients first, how does the client’s culture affect this understanding and what should companies focus on? In answering this question, one needs to recognise that material culture that the clients live in, what makes them tick and therefore how culture shapes consumption.

This consumption and the accumulation of objects is a trend can be traced as far back as the seventeenth century. ‘Possessive individualism’ in western cultures was brought to the fore with the emergence of the person as owner, i.e. an individual surrounded by accumulated property and goods. It is this reaction towards the element of want and need that brands need to understand to be able to infiltrate and excel in a marketplace.

Therefore, brands should ask themselves the inevitable question: Is consumption merely an irrational behaviour? Can things be ‘the material culture of love’? What if brands position products and services on a different perspective? Gone should be the days that brands and marketing offer a culture solely associated with a soulless or an immoral consumerist practice.

What if brands thought of objects from a different social and economic perspective? Could it be that they position themselves to enable the making and maintaining of relationships? A British anthropologist, Daniel Miller in his book, “A Theory of Shopping” suggests that consumption and capitalism are not incompatible to social values of the self, the family and the community. Instead, his research goes to the extreme and suggests that shopping is about love and about a way of making relations with others. Brands should do precisely this! They need to make tangible the feeling that their clients have for their friends and family. Their product or service needs to match how they feel – reflecting their product as an idea of themselves through the client’s consumption decisions.

Conclusion

The mantra of “thinking differently” has now been assimilated as the philosophy of the 21st century branding strategy. The key is to innovate at the speed of the market. Constant change requires constant novelty while moving into an era of perpetual innovation within a cultural context. The journey from innovation to commodity is so short that there is little time to capitalise on it – it is time for change!

Bibliography

1 Kim, W. C. & Mauborgne, R. (2015) Blue Ocean Strategy: How to create uncontested market space and make the competition irrelevant – expanded edition, Harvard Business School Publishing Corporation
McAlhone, B., Stuart, D., Quinton, G. & Asbury, N. (2016) A Smile in the Mind – Revised and Expanded Edition: Witty Thinking in Graphic Design, Phaidon.
3 McCracken, G. (1988) Culture and Consumption: New Approaches to the Symbolic Character of Consumer Good and Activities; The Evocative Power of Things, Indiana University Press.
4 Miller, D. (2013) A Theory of Shopping, Wiley.
5 Neumeier, M. (2006) The Brand Gap – How to bridge the distance between business strategy and design, New Riders (Peachpit Press).
6 Neumeier, M. (2007) Zag – The #1 Strategy of High-Performance Brands, New Riders (Peachpit Press).
7 Neumeier, M. (2006) The Brand Gap – How to bridge the distance between business strategy and design, New Riders (Peachpit Press).
8 Neumeier, M. (2016) The Brand Flip – Why customers now run companies and how to profit from it, New Riders (Peachpit Press).

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