On my way into the office one morning, I was listening to NPR discussing a recent Walmart ad campaign that was positioned directly against the regional grocery market chain Harris Teeter. The ad, which featured a consumer shopping at Harris Teeter, then shopping at Walmart for the same items. It ended up saving the consumer about 10%. The discussion raised the question of how Harris Teeter can fight back when prices are so much lower at Walmart? The obvious assumption by NPR was that it certainly had to compete using something other than price.
NPR, looking for other ways Harris Teeter could stay competitive, had a guest to talk about what HT can do. Those became the typical go-to list of category table stakes: Clean store, great service, etc. Those are all valuable areas for Harris Teeter to perfect, but they act as a perfect demonstration of how marketing today very often confuses best practices with reasons to prefer. Harris Teeter should certainly have exceptional customer service, and the cleaner the store the better. But these are things that every competitor in the category should already be doing. They are also what consumers already expect. They are the table stakes for grocery stores. They simply allow the store to exist in the category. They do not, in themselves, build preference.
Preference is built by brand, and this is how Harris Teeter can eliminate any effect from the Walmart ads. Putting all of its efforts into its brand provides context for those best practices. Just think about it. What is more important to a consumer, telling them you have a clean store or understanding what they believe about themselves that makes a clean store more valuable than price? The latter is emotional. When consumer beliefs are understood, they provide a context that can be used to frame everything else you do. Essentially, everything works together under a single, resonate idea, rather than as multiple separate “things.” Things only represent activities and it is important to not confuse activity with accomplishment.