Preference is being different, not copying Nike

Copying the market leader only helps the market leader

Stop looking to the market leader like Nike as a role model. Consumer product branding is more complicated than that. This is a tough hump to get over because good common sense tells us to look for clues in proven successes. We still should. However, clues are not found in the advertising execution. But rather in the strategy to avoid.

As savvy marketers, we all nod our heads in agreement about the need to look at strategy. But when looking at advertising messages, admit that we see a world full of the same brand messages and companies making the same mistakes.

Consider the athletic shoe category as a case in point. Nike is far and away the category leader. It built a juggernaut of a franchise on a new understanding of brand. While others in the category were busy selling “run faster and jump higher” (product benefits), Nike was hard at work selling brand.

Nike did not copy Nike

Nike got it early on that consumers don’t buy benefits. They buy identity. The shoe manufacturer did (and still does) a great job telling all of us who we are when we lace up a pair of its shoes. Not only did we flock in droves to buy them, we paid a tremendous price for the privilege of choosing the brand. Meanwhile, great old legacy brands such as Converse, Puma, and Adidas slipped further and further behind in the market. PF Flyers and others simply turned over and passed away completely.

NikeSome upstart fashion brands slipped in and out. But no one has cracked the Nike rock. The lesson concerns brand segmentation and identification. The clues of its success are found in the brand thinking. It shows the guts  in going against the advertising grain. Nike invented a new way to market and its advertising has never faltered.

Competitors did, however

The advertising has retained its freshness and brand integrity. However, some of the competition decided the best way to fight Nike is to be just like it. A new Adidas commercial, starring Los Angeles Laker Kobe Bryant as the featured athlete (athlete endorser, now there’s a novel idea), has him cavorting above the rim in some hi-tech magic. It looks, sounds and, worst of all, feels just like a Nike spot featuring Michael Jordan.

This campaign hit the airwaves despite the fact that we all learned in Marketing 101 that only the market leader has the luxury of category building. Adidas will never be successful in challenging the Nike brand as long as it tries to be just like it. (Adidas wants to be like Mike.) If competitors wish to challenge, they must identify the members of a tight marketing segment and play to their differences. Not attract their similarities.

Who in the athletic shoe category would not want to be like Nike? When you are spending $2.5 million on production for a single TV commercial and another $100 million on airtime, who among us is willing to take a risk? Ah, but here is the rub.

There is no risk in being just like the market leader. Risk, by definition, means an uncertain outcome. But failure is certain when you copy the market leader. In truth, it is not about risk but about blame. Who in the marketing department is going to get blamed for copying the market leader? Who ever lost their job developing computer software for designing a copycat program of Microsoft? Stealing Share clients are different. We aren’t rewarded for team participation. We’re rewarded for winning.

Do you want to win?

Being Like NikeIf you want to win, know your target audience better than the competition. Design research to understand core beliefs, the anthropological data that helps you get inside their dreams and aspirations. Nike is not about athletic competition or shoes, it is all about us.

Who do we, as consumers, think we are? Who do we wish to be? How do we tell everyone around us what is important to us? (We are people who “just do it.”) And if we, as marketers, develop a brand strategy to position us against a market leader, ask, “How is the target market different than who the market leader thinks it is?”

Chart the messages, the style and the content.

(Here is a great example of charting a market.) Figure out which brand what messages. More often than not, you will find the style and messaging will be similar because brands try to copy the leader. If someone rises to the top with humorous advertising, you can expect everyone else filing into line like lemmings heading to the sea. Be different. Not just because you want to, but because you know how being different will grow your market share.

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