Why brands don’t need to own things

Al Ries and Jack Trout coined the concept of Positioning back when the only brands I knew were Fuzzy Felt and Fisher Price. Later, when Al and his daughter Laura Ries wrote the 22 Immutable Laws of Branding  I was an undergraduate hungry for the sort of bullet-point certainties that looked good in a dissertation.

I still go back to it, like I do with Stephen King’s writings on Brand Planning or Marshall McLuhan on Understanding Media – not because they’re the immutable wisdom that Al and Laura might’ve claimed, but because they are the ‘origins’ story, the core texts – and they’re written by people cleverer than me.

But ‘Positioning’ – like all good metaphors – can get a bit too sticky, and glom on to all sorts of stuff. So it’s worth picking it off a bit.

And when it comes to laws… no-one carries a copy of Magna Carta into court. We use the centuries of case law to help us to test and define what was really meant.

So, what has case-law taught me about those Immutable Laws?

Burn or Earn?

Let’s take one of the 22 Laws – it’s called The Law of the Word:

A brand should strive to own a word in the mind of the consumer.

We should  “burn [y]our way into the mind by narrowing the focus to a single word or concept.”

But this runs counter to our knowledge of the mind, and over-simplifies the purpose of a brand. The mind isn’t a territorial map made out of jelly, with these preordained bits called ‘safety’ or ‘sharing’ or ‘overnight delivery’ – ready for brands like Volvo, Coke and Fedex to plant their flag and claim occupancy.

Is it even relevant to talk about ‘owning’ anything in branding?

Raze The Flag

It now feels as outdated as any colonial foreign policy. Consumers’ minds aren’t a territorial map to be fought over, and once occupied, to be held with defensive walls and border controls (sorry, The Donald).

For brands today, it’s more like we’re laying a trail of stone-ground, organic, gluten-free breadcrumbs back to our place, where the consumer can feast on a banquet of equally wholesome fayre.

It’s about engaging, not occupying. And it’s about permission, not conquest. And about earning, not burning.

Niall FitzGerald, formerly chairman of Unilever, once said that the goal of a brand is to gain “a monopoly, by permission.”

And, in part, that’s because…

The Consumer is not The Gimp

I think many of us still linger under the enduring misapprehension that the goal of branding and marketing is to round up captive consumers. To assume that the sine qua non is Brand Loyalists. This is despite the contrary evidence of Ehrenberg’s work and the IPA’s effectiveness data, recruiting new users to a brand is much more fertile than trying to increase frequency of purchase.

It’s not about loyalty, it’s about reach.

Word or Story?

That’s why, at Bottle, when we position a brand (still think of it as positioning) we no longer distil it down to the word we’re going to own. We write a story. A brand narrative that has an arc, a journey. In which the consumer is a hero, not a captive.

Moment or Momentum?

And because there is no assault on their neural territory, we’re not planning the D-Day landings, the moment when we wrest control from some other brand-occupying-force.

Instead we are designing a framework for a flow of stories, that builds brand momentum. This is the continuous – not singular – communication that creates the vital brand-value which Young & Rubicam have measured, and then labelled, as Energised Differentiation.

Know Yourself, Own Yourself

A brand that’s well-positioned is like a well-grounded – and interesting – person. You want consumers to have that sense of “they’re so grounded.” Grounded brands exude confidence. They take risks – because they are self-assured. They know themselves, and they know their purpose.

If you’re looking for something to own – own your own story.

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