[Although this chapter is primarily for single of master-branded companies, and less for portfolio companies such as packaged goods firms, I like to think that it has something for everyone]
True differentiation runs deep.
In some companies, the product is seen as the visible reflection of the culture- and, as customers, we sense it.
What we think of as the brand often seems more like a simple lens through which we can experience the tightly focused culture behind it. As customers, we don’t think this cultural connection through very deeply; we just kind of feel it and sense it to be true. Thus, when we sense a culture that we identify with, we also sense a brand we can identify with (and the other way around).
We sense a product or service we want to participate in, not simply buy.
Most important, when we actually do come into contact with this type of culture, the uniqueness and strength of the brand is tangible. You can breathe it; you can almost touch it.
To achieve this, you must build your brand on the inside before connecting with a culture on the outside. Great brands have a sense of mission. They live their mission; they don’t just mouth the words. When you buy the product or service, you are buying into this sense of mission. You are participating with the provider, not just buying from it. These brands have true cultural uniqueness. They have developed ways to “operationalize” this cultural uniqueness and harness it as a competitive advantage in the marketplace.
Consider this manifesto from the Burton Snowboards website:
-We stand sideways.
-We sleep on floors in cramped resort hotel rooms.
-We get up early and go to sleep late.
-We’ve been mocked.
-We’ve been turned away from resorts that won’t have us.
-We are relentless.
-We dream it, we make it, we break it, we fix it.
-We wreck ourselves day in and day out and yet we stomp that one trick or find that one line that keeps us coming back.
Think they know what they’re all about? Burton is an original. As a business and as a culture, Burton is a pure celebration of difference.
It’s easy to look at companies like Burton and think that they’re totally unlike your company- that they are an edgy, passionate business that operates in an edgy, passionate category. As a result, it’s easy to think that your category is just not that exciting. But that is cheating. It’s your job to find the drama. Find the passion and bring it! Find a way to apply it to your category and into the very heart of your company’s culture. It is your job to create and maintain a sense of mission. Granted, your job will be harder than that of your counterpart at Burton, who enjoys a supportive and focused corporate culture, but you can’t give up on it.
As an example, take a look at a software firm called SAS, which is consistently rated one of the best companies to work for in America. CEO Jim Goodnight honestly views the SAS workforce as a family. Extensive employee services, including daycare, education and recreation, are all available at SAS’s North Carolina campus. People who work at SAS appreciate the unique culture they belong to, and many talented people who don’t work there would like to. SAS’s culture and moral compass are what really drive its revenue. Low turnover and high morale also drive the company’s top line- and contribute to the bottom line as well.
The same is true of Costco. Costco treats its people well: It pays them better than others in the industry and provides them with a better benefits package. Happy employees, extremely low turnover and a dynamic growing business with a very loyal customer base- coincidence? Not on your life. A brand built from the inside out? Absolutely.
Put simply, there are no terminally dull categories or products. It’s just a question of determination and imagination- and this is the vitally important point that all marketers need to get into their heads. Sometimes the “idea” or “drama” is right in front of your eyes, and sometimes it may seem impossible to find. But you should always assume it is there. Create your brand’s mission. Build your brand and company culture around it. “Operationalize” it.
If it’s real and if it runs deep, a culture-based competitive advantage will stand the test of time. By comparison, a product- or service-based advantage, while also critical to success, will prove more transitory.
I know, I know. That’s easy to say and hard to do. But at least give it a shot.
Check back for more positioning POV from Austin McGhie, head of Sterling Strategy