Pop Culture lives on coolness

Pop Culture relies on fashion sensabilitites

Volkswagen as pop culturePop culture is a risky brand business. I heard a report this morning on Marketplace about Volkswagen. Basically, the report focused on the effects of the VW settlement on the automaker’s product development pipeline. The reporter stated that the multi-billion dollar settlement would make the Volkswagen new model pipeline a bit bumpy. He said that it might put a crimp on the innovation that VW hopes to achieve to keep their product line COOL.

Cool is a scary word for me in the branding business because the idea of cool is all about making a connection to an aesthetic sensibility that is connected to personal taste in an odd way. In some ways, maybe many ways, cool can be defined as a fad.

Cool is hard to bank on in pop culture

What was cool yesterday in pop culture may not be cool today. What was once considered cool can digress into downright kitsch. If you want proof, take a trek to Graceland and – aside from the greatness of Elvis’s talent itself and the voyeuristic thrill of peering into the private life of a celebrity – you’ll find that there is NOTHING in that mansion that we covet today.

Graceland is Pop cultureWe don’t want the blue shag rugs or the clumsy devices that passed for high tech in the day. What was once cool (and even, in the case of Graceland, where no expense was spared) is just a pile of dated junk. Pop culture cool just does not have legs. Cool by definition is mercurial.

Apple used to be cool. Much of that coolness came from the charisma and genius of Steve Jobs. Since his death, Apple is just innovative and has yet to hit the mark with the same coolness that Steve naturally oozed and made Apple products de rigueur.

Cool can be a goal for some brands. But hitting that sweet spot is a difficult task in pop culture. Predicting success is even more difficult.

Recognizing what is cool and developing product to that standard is near impossible. The parent brand can deliver permission for its coolness but adoption of that next cool thing is more about happenstance.

But it is not just a problem with Pop Culture

Movies as pop cultureThink about this for a moment: The major movie studios try to produce blockbuster movies. While they may not use the word cool to describe their intent, you certainly would not be stretching the definition of coolness by thinking about it in terms of a movie’s appeal.

What interests me here is how often the movie industry misses the mark. The studios invest millions of dollars in a script, director, cinematographer and proven stars and still turn out a BUST. You would think, with all of their resources, they would have more hits than misses. But predicting popularity is that near impossible.

Brands that make their reputation and mark by being considered cool are only as valuable as their latest iteration. The rest is left up to chance.

Sharp TVs are leaving the Americas

All you need to know why it’s difficult to discern among the television brands is to read this quite from Lee Neikirk of Reviewed.com. He’s discussion the advantages of Sharp TVs, which are being discontinuing in the Americas.

“Sharp TVs are perhaps most notable for their Quattron technology, with introduces a fourth sub-pixel into the traditional RGB matrix. In recent year, Sharp has also experimented with effective upscaling – as seen in the company’s Beyond 4K Ultra HD TV – and a moth eye screen that diffuses light.”


Of course, Neikirk is an industry insider whose job it is to dig into the different technologies.

Explain the technology please.
Explain the technology please.

But what he wrote is not all that far from what the TV manufacturers say themselves to target audiences. It’s all technological gobbledygook that penetrates our minds about as effectively as a snowball against a brick wall.

Sharp has become the latest victim of such an approach as the 103-year-old Japanese company is pulling out of the TV business in the Americas following low sales and a single focus on the technology of the TV.

As we said in a television manufacturer study a few years ago, the brands within the market think televisions are all about the technology. That’s akin to talking only about product benefits if you’re selling automobiles. Product benefits are important, but don’t confuse them with the reason why consumers choose.

It’s easy to see why manufacturers have fallen into this trap. The race for a clearer, deeper and bigger viewing experience has made them head to the R&D labs with urgency. Once the new technology comes out, the manufacturers tout it. Then it’s on to the next technology.

The problem is that, even if you develop a true breakthrough, it’s only a matter of time until everyone has similar technology. At that point, consumers are not buying based on technology but on price and what brand makes them feel the most comfortable.

My own choice of TV.

I recently bought a Sony Bravia for one of my backrooms and I’ll tell you how I chose that one. The TVs are all in an array at the back of the store. I knew what size I needed and what my budget was.

Then I checked the brands. Among them, Sony felt like the safest choice among the Vizios and, yes, the Sharps sitting along side it.

That was it. I chose based on brand.

If TV manufacturers continue to think the technology is what is going to sell their TVs first and foremost, they also might go the way of Sharp. Technology is important, but the brand is what consumers use to navigate themselves through the confusing gobbledygook.

Business-to-Business: Brand May Be All That is Left

By Tom Dougherty

Brand Development in Manufacturing

brand development in manufacturing
Manufacturing Companies are often too literal

Like the rest of us, B-to-B does not live or function in a vacuum. We have all undoubtedly heard that we live in a world where we are constantly being bombarded by advertising messages. Everywhere we turn, from the TV to the bus stop bench to the blimps flying over sporting events, there is a consistent overwhelming presence of advertising messages. Even the pen on your desk, with a logo, is a marketing message.

While we see a plethora of consumer ads, we see very few strictly B-to-B ads. We forget that clients of B-to-B companies are consumers too. Quite often, the only way they may hear about a company is through advertising. A company may have the best new business development mangers in the world, but there is no way they can identify every potential client or industry with applications for their products or services. They can come close, but there will inevitably be some that fall through the cracks.

Most B-to-B companies are experts in the business of their business. They have to be. They present themselves as industry experts as well as experts in helping businesses. They are the experts, they have the products, and they know the business of their business.

No Brand Management

However, nearly all B-to-B companies lack coherent brand management to run the business of their brands. Contrary to the beliefs of many companies, their brand is vital for their long-term success. Creating a better brand is the key to creating a better B-to-B. Companies are in a constant battle to invent, borrow, re-invent, and perfect. First mover advantage, a term that marketing folks hold true like it’s the holy grail, does not mean as much as it once did. The recognition of being first to market is short-lived.

brand development in manufacturing is complex
Manufacturers need to see past their product

Those companies find their ideas being duplicated by the company down the street in a matter of weeks, negating their first mover advantage. B-to-B companies see this cycle all the time. It is characteristic of the industry. If all companies within a given sector are providing the same service, the only thing that they believe to be left for differentiation is price.

This is not true either. Price has become a table stake in the market space. Having the best possible price is a requirement of all clients seeking a B-to-B company. If a company does not have competitive prices, it will not be a successful company for very long. (See a case study on manufacturing brands here)

What do companies have left to differentiate them from one another? What companies do have left is brand. Since very few B-to-B companies are investing in their brand, this means there is great opportunity. The idea of brand probably seems foreign or nonsensical to many executives, but, when properly utilized, brand can be the difference-maker.

In their essence, brand development in manufacturing is not very different from other consumer products companies. They make something, whether it is a product or a service, market it, and they sell it. Most consumer products companies know that they operate in a market full of products just like theirs. They know that the only thing that separates products from one another is their brand.

Changes Are Needed

Strategic brand development in manufacturing
Manufacturers often serve a global audience

Companies must start behaving like consumer products companies. They must understand that if they want to differentiate themselves from the other companies in the market they must invest in their brand. Branding the company is not that much different than branding any other company. First, you must understand the market in which you operate, uncover factors in selection, and build your brand around the precepts (beliefs) of those who purchase your products and services. Brand is not about the company; it is about the consumer.

While there is surely a high degree of market segmentation for each B-to-B company, the branding message must remain unified. The marketing messages can be tailored to align with each segment of the market with the promise of the brand as the over-riding message. When brand is executed properly in any sector something amazing happens. The target market begins to covet your brand. In fact, in the case of these markets, it is often the way to get in the door of someone who currently does not choose you.

Prospects relate to your brand on almost an instinctual level. Margins begin to increase, and customers will seek you out even if that means they are inconvenienced to do so. You will become what your customers covet.


Read more on the B2B category here:

B2B Market Research

Is it all about price?

Business-to-Business Market Research: A Wide Open Opportunity

Business-to-Business Market Research Means Business

By Tom Dougherty

B-to-B Strategy Is Special

business-to-business market research provides surprising results
How the research is conducted matters

Developing and enhancing brands for companies whose main emphasis is business to business has very specific challenges.  These characteristic obstacles make the brand development model in B-to B strategy more complicated; however, this means the outcomes are all the more valuable. In general, the direct to consumer research process seems very straight forward, and it is assumed that this kind of market research is much more easily conducted.

This is not necessarily the case. In fact, the methodology of business-to-business market research is very similar to this model, and the importance is every bit as relevant. In all truly revealing research, regardless of industry, the value is dependent on both your ability to ask the right questions and your ability to identify the target audience to survey.

The questions that you ask to define your target are the same regardless of the venue. Who are the primary decision makers?  Who influences the decision? Who should be the decision maker?  The last question is most compelling because it requires innovative thinking and possibly even new category creation. In work that Stealing Share completed for a national logistics provider, discovering who should be the decision-maker opened the doors to new opportunity.

Do Homework

Before the study began, we agreed that we needed to place focus upon the corporate logistics managers, the individuals who held the responsibility of running the in-house logistics departments. Upon further thought and our preceptive behavior modeling, it began to emerge that a substantial opportunity existed with the “C” level executive.  Our modeling indicated a tendency in the logistics manager to be risk adverse, and committed to keeping logistics in-house.

The “C” level executive appeared more receptive to strategic messaging and more apt to embrace the change that hiring a third party logistics provider (3PL) represented. (Read how the CEO needs to be involved here). All of these hypotheses surfaced from the research. As suspected, the logistics manager did not want to give up control while the CEO viewed the gesture as a strategic decision. This discovery turned the industry on its ear, and all it required was simply assuming nothing and looking at the playing field with unbiased eyes. However, this is not ever where the work ends. Hypotheses lead to an entirely different series of questions, and the brand process continues.

What is Next?

After the target audience is identified, you then must understand the entire market by asking the right questions. You need to develop a means to profile the category in a way that will allow you to segment it in cross tabulations (for marketing purposes) as well as aid in developing sales messaging. Myers/Briggs profiling, for example, in our research questionnaire can be productive because it allows us to observe the target as if they represent an individual personality type. With this knowledge we are able to get our arms around the target and visualize them as a person rather then as a faceless company.

business-to-business market research looks at the customer as a person
Market share is the end game

Build your questions around your strategy and not around the known. Getting a business executive to speak with you during the business day is difficult, so assume that the incidence (the rate of completed surveys per number of calls made) will be low and more costly.

As the questionnaire is written, we like to think of it as a telegram and remind ourselves that we are paying dearly for every word. Do not ask questions to which you already know the answers. Most existing research is populated with non-essential data and sheds minimal light on the real marketing issues. Ask difficult questions that enable you to actually gain insight on the segment. In addition, you must compare your brand to the competitive set and find out who is credited with certain attributes.

The difficulty is that we are not talking about product attributes such as price. We are talking about brand attributes like beliefs and imagery. These answers will allow you to look at the market clearly and honestly. Furthermore, if you queried the target market as to the importance of these attributes, you will not only know what is important but who owns it.

In order to steal market share you must understand switching behaviors and beliefs. Open-ended questions will not give you the fodder you seek because price and availability are table stakes. If you ask consumers, they will tell you that price is the issue. This is what consumers regurgitate to protect themselves from looking foolish. Price is the first answer because it is the easiest value for your target audience to quantify. Obviously within your B-to-B category there is limited price elasticity, and you have no choice but to play in that range. What you seek to understand is, with all things being equal (read price), what makes a difference?

This requires careful thought because you must prompt the respondents and then get them to rank attributes dispassionately. This kind of business-to-business market research is involved work but indispensable in helping your B-to-B brand steal market share. Only when you fully understand the precepts (beliefs) of your target audience can your brand be implemented to influence the purchase decision. The secret is that the customer needs to covet your brand every bit as much as you covet the purchase transaction. (Read more detail on market research and the difference between methodologies here)

Read a B2B market study here

Paper Clips – It Does not Matter What You Manufacture

How important is branding when marketing manufacturing companies?

By Tom Dougherty

Here is a strange one right out of the theater of the absurd. Often, companies tell us that their product has become a commodity. So, how can brand help sell a commodity?

The answer is so simple it begs to make a dismissive sweep of the hand at the question. Brand is commodity is the only differentiator if you are marketing or selling a commodity. If you don’t invest in your brand, you might just as well shutter the windows and board up the door. All that you have left is price and convenience.

When marketing manufacturing companies you must consider the emotional connections
Manufacturing Companies are often too literal

Most of the actions taken when marketing manufacturing companies turn out to be wrong. Many make mistakes because many don’t understand brand at all (and neither do many branding companies, for that matter). These marketers have been swallowing all the popular culture about the importance of branding but have unfortunately got caught up in a meaningless model that creates no preference. It is the old idea that brand is simply a means of differentiating a product or service so that the customer will remember it. Identity is important, but it is only the façade of a brand.

The Ultimate Commodity

Let’s look at a commodity category. Take paper clips — the ultimate commodity. A box of paper clips sits on everyone’s desk and yet almost no one knows the brand name or manufacturer that made them. The paper clip manufacturer relies on distribution and price to sell its wares and, to make matters wore, most also create the private label brands that inevitably create the price point. This is the epitome of no-frills branding

In other words, they sell a commodity whose price point is determined by the private label product they also supply. “No Frills Brand” defines the market.

The reason for this debacle is that the manufacturer believes it is selling paper clips. In fact, it is selling organization and simplicity. After all, no one needs a paper clip as a desk ornament. However, we all use the clever little device when we want to organize papers (temporarily) or attach something to a folder (temporarily). The temporary part separates paper clips from staples (which is a more permanent solution) as a product, but they certainly compete in the same category. They are both fasteners.

Today, paper clips compete in only a few ways. The color of the box, the material of the clip (plastic or metal), the size of the clip, the quantity of the contents, and the price point are the only differentiators. The category is not led by innovation. The latest innovation in this legacy category is colored clips, either a plastic injected clip or a vinyl color coating over a metal clip.

Think about how lost this category is. They have abandoned all hope of preference based on utility and instead have tried to instill a fashion element into a category of utility. The category itself does not carry permission for such emotional intensity because no one has built a brand. Instead, they have built a sales model where the real battle for customer is fought with the gatekeepers of the big box office retailers. (Read a market study on differentiation here)

Stop Being the Lowest Common Denominator

So how should they do it differently? What should you do when marketing manufacturing companies? First on the agenda is to get out of their own way and stop playing the game of lowest common denominator. We know from experience that brand preference is an emotional conduit. It arises without the cogent knowledge of the end user. It is not a cognitive choice, even though they will rationalize why they purchased the clips. The rational reason is an afterthought not a purchase driver.

Growing market share is ALWAYS the goal
Grow market share. Don’t just defend it.

A winning paper clip brand is not about paper clips. It is all about the purchaser. As consumers (and businesses) seek to reaffirm their own sense of identity, they naturally prefer products that, in their own minds-eye, seem to be targeted at people or businesses like themselves.

What they seek is to reaffirm their own self-concept and every little bit of help they can get towards that goal creates preference. There is an elasticity element in the price point, to be sure, but the high end of that stretch is not found in a product benefit but rather in a personal benefit that answers the question “ Who buys this?”

Branding A Commodity — Brand Anthropology

This is where brand anthropology comes in to play, even in a category like paper clips. If you want to influence prospects and get them to prefer your product and pay more for it, you need to understand their lives and to what they aspire to become. This knowledge is scientifically available to those who know how to glean it, but it is not a simple process of focus groups and U&A studies. (Read a market study on branding a commodity and manufacturing here)

Once you uncover these precepts, or core beliefs, it is incumbent on the brand to infuse those emotional cues in the product, packaging, promise and innovation.

It is an easy fix to make a brand package look different from the competition. Standing out as a box of paper clips is not difficult. What is difficult is making that difference a reflection of the highest emotional intensity. Everything must reflect that intensity and any extraneous messages, be them intentional or implied, must be minimized or eliminated.

It works. Brands are known to bump the market leader out of first place. It does not happen often because it means reevaluating everything and few brands have the courage to do that. Those that do, we call them clients.