Marketing and The Art of War – The Battle for Brand Relevance

“The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.”
― Sun Tzu, The Art of War

Marketing is a battle — for mindshare, marketshare, customers, etc. The word “battle” conjures up images of bloody conflicts where wins come with undesirable consequences and scores of casualties. Many companies approach a marketing strategy with this hand-to-hand, in-the-trenches conflict mindset.

Their goal is — with a hope and a prayer … and a bit of luck — to outmaneuver, out-rank, and out-spend the competition using blunt force marketing, and hopefully make money, and survive to fight the next battle, in the process.

The problem? This approach rarely works in the long term.

This mentality is known as the Brand Preference approach to marketing. While it’s very common, it’s an increasingly difficult path to success in today’s dynamic market. This is because customers are not inclined or motivated to change brand loyalties once they’re set, no matter how much you spend or fight to gain marketshare.

The Brand Preference Model

In a Brand Preference model, massive amounts of money and effort are expended to realize small gains in marketshare. Small gains which are often reluctantly celebrated as “wins.” The hope is that a customer who is loyal to a brand will see your ad, Facebook post, television commercial, etc and switch to your product or service.

And, in the instance that your ad or post does incentivize someone to try your product or service, the reality is that, in a dynamic market, a savvy competitor will usually respond with such speed and vigor that any short term gains are quickly mitigated.

A market where competitors engage in brand preference warfare is usually a recipe for unsatisfactory profitability.

The Brand Relevance Model

There is another way. A way to go into the battle and, as Sun Tzu teaches, “…subdue the enemy without fighting.” It’s called the Brand Relevance model, and a handful of companies today are utilizing this model with enormous success, gaining significant marketshare and profits in the process.

A Brand Relevance strategy focuses on changing what people buy by creating new categories or subcategories that alter the ways people look at the purchase decision and user experience. The goal in a Brand Relevance strategy is not to simply beat competitors, it is to make them irrelevant by enticing customers to buy a category or subcategory for which most or all alternative brands aren’t considered relevant because they lack context, visibility, or credibility.

The Brand Relevance approach to marketing gained support in the book “Blue Ocean Strategy” by authors Mauborgne and Kim. In a nutshell, a blue ocean is one set apart from a red ocean, where the water is blood red because of shark attacks. In a red ocean, the blood attracts other sharks, and the waters get redder and redder from ongoing attacks (and cutthroat competitors). It’s an endless cycle of survival of the fittest.

A blue ocean is one free from shark attacks and other predators. A place where threats don’t exist, or are at least minimized. It’s an approach to marketing that leading companies like Apple, Zappos, Amazon and others have implemented with enormous success.

Making the Shift To a Brand Relevance Model

Shifting from a Brand Preference model to a Brand Relevance model is not as challenging as it may seem. The first step is to identify where your current product or service fits within the context of the overall competitive market. Then find a differentiator — a quality or brand personality component that sets you apart from your competitors. Is it your unique approach to customer service? Your personal touch advantage because of a local market presence? If you dig deep enough, you will find it.

Then, promote that subcategory, of which your company or service is the only one offering. Promoting the subcategory, rather than your product or service directly, gives potential customers the option to consider the category first and it’s relevance to them. Then, once they’re convinced that category has an appeal, they’ll begin looking for products or services within that category to buy. And, if yours is the only brand in that category, what other choice does the consumer have?

One suggestion in looking for that subcategory differentiator: try to find an emotional “hook” you can work from, rather than a functional advantage such as faster, cheaper, better — qualities your competitors can easily claim or market to. In basing your subcategory strategy on a purely functional benefit, you may find yourself back in the red ocean. Conversely, if you can build your Brand Relevance model on an emotional or self-expressive benefit, you’re well on your way to smooth sailing in a blue ocean.

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