30 Choices that can Make or Break Your Brand

The “Elements of Value” HBR article by Bain & Company Partners (Eric Almquist, John Senior, and Nicholas Bloch) is a must read for Brand Builders. While the authors don’t specifically discuss “Brand Positioning” and Points-of-Difference / Points-of-Parity, their 30 Elements Pyramid is a “must have” tool in the toolbox for anyone doing positioning work. This provides a high level recap of the HBR article and my tips for application to Brand Positioning.

The authors believe that there is a “universal set of building blocks of value that allow companies to come up with new combinations of value that its products and services could deliver”.  They have identified 30 “Elements of Value” that fall into four Categories of needs in a Maslow-like hierarchy: Functional, emotional, life changing, and social impact. These Categories are oft discussed in Marketing circles, but the unpacking these 4 into 30 distinct sources of value makes it super actionable. For example, “convenience” which frequently surfaces in positioning work is unpacked to reveal: saves time, avoids hassle, simplifies, and reduces effort.


Click here to see all 30 Elements of Value (after 4th paragraph)

The Bain & Company work further reveals:

  • Companies that perform well on multiple elements of value (4+) have more loyal customers as measured by NPS and 4x the revenue growth (Apple, USAA, TOMS, Amazon)
  • Pure-play digital retailers (think Amazon) with “astonishing growth” achieve high scores on many (like 8) elements of value.
  • Once Quality expectations are met, critical elements are industry dependent (“sensory appeal” is critical in Food / Bev; Digital companies excel on “saves time” / “avoids hassle”)

So, more is better, but you can’t realistically have all 30. This is where tough choices on Brand Positioning come in. Brand Builders would be remiss to do positioning work without using this model. Top tips for leveraging this gem for more robust Brand Positioning:

  1. Discuss the relative importance of each rung in the Pyramid and each individual value element as a driver of Brand choice in your Category. If you don’t have this data, get it! Positioning requires you to understand drivers of choice in your Category.
  2. Then understand which Brand(s) are over and under-delivering on each element and why. Again, this is critical data to inform positioning choices.
  3. Decide which value elements you want as Points-of-Difference and the feasibility of attaining. Prioritize and make tough choices on which elements you will pursue as Points-of-Difference.
  4. Then determine – for all remaining value elements – which must be Points-of-Parity to enable you to be a Category player (Category Points-of-Parity) or to keep a competitor at bay (Competitive Points-of-Parity).
  5. What’s left? Any elements you’ve not chosen as Points-of-Difference or Points-of-Parity will likely become Points-of-Disadvantage. Can you live with those?

LPA specializes in Brand Strategy and we love “wicked positioning challenges”.  We’re excited to see how the Elements of Value can enhance positioning choices.

Click here for 30 Elements of Value


Take the $$$ and Run

I recently purchased a new luxury car. I won’t reveal the Brand nor the dealership because my intent is not to harm, but rather to share marketing lessons from a customer experience debacle. 

After 15 years of loyalty to Lexus, I decided to try a new Brand. In the auto industry, trial stakes are high so I researched extensively, concluding that it was a safe bet – so I took the plunge. The subsequent couple of months were filled with aggravation for me-as-customer and with rich learnings for me-as-marketer.  

Focus on “Consumer Journey”, not “Path-to-Purchase”.

I recently discussed these terms with a client. I was using “Path-to-Purchase”. The client requested “Consumer Journey” instead to be clear that there is no finish line. Boy, was he right. My Path-to-Purchase was impeccable: red carpet treatment. However, after my purchase, the journey stunk. Consumer journeys have no finish line.   

Maintain Brand “control” over distribution channel to fullest extent possible.

My car was manufactured overseas and distributed by a US distributor (not owned or operated by the Company). When I received seriously subpar service, I called the Customer Service line. The Company rep took my story and told me that “outside of a mechanical problem, there is nothing we can do. We don’t have control over our dealerships – they are independent entities. We only deal with warranty issues”.  These days, successful Brands must shepherd customer satisfaction at any cost – they listen, they fix, they reconcile. And they ensure that their reps do the same.

Don’t patronize me… Help me

Within the first week of purchase, I realized there was a glitch in the voice command system, which I rely on pretty heavily. Rather than helping me get to the bottom of the issue, the dealership told me it worked perfectly for them and it might be something with my speech. I felt insulted and dismissed, and still fairly confident I didn’t have a speech impediment. Siri understands me just fine. A week later, I took a road trip with my astute colleague who noticed a pattern: letters later in the alphabet didn’t register. I deleted 2/3’s of my 6,000 contacts and BINGO – problem fixed. I felt vindicated knowing that the issue wasn’t imagined, but annoyed that neither the dealership nor the company helped me resolve the glitch.

Everyone who represents a Brand impacts a Brand’s equity.

After one of several service appointments in first month, my car was to be returned to me at my location by a “knowledgeable Service manager who would go over everything with me”. Sounded nice. But he showed up in sweat pants and a sweat shirt — dress that made me uncomfortable even getting into the car with him. I spend a lot of my life in sweat pants, but not when I’m meeting a client! He then told me that he’d “never used” the particular electronic system in my car, and didn’t really know how to work it, but could “play with it” and figure things out. With some brands, the product isn’t the problem—the people are. Either way, a brand can be helped or harmed even by “small stuff”.

Be on time. Be present.

As someone who is chronically running late, my nose is growing on this one. And it seems so obvious. But I had a situation a week after purchase wherein my Salesman was not available to explain things to me at our agreed appointment time because he was helping another customer (aka — focused on making another sale vs. taking care of an existing customer… whose money he already had). When he finally got to me, he was interrupted to deal with other prospective customers, leaving me to feel unappreciated and unimportant. It seems my Consumer Journey ended when I gave him my credit card number.

Strive for “no manual needed” standard-of-excellence.

I’ve now been driving this car for about 5-6 weeks and I know 80/20+ how to work all the functions. But it was not intuitive – not even close to Apple. I had to memorize a bunch of stuff to operate smoothly. Even for complex purchases, most people don’t have the time, interest, or patience to read manuals. Apple reset our expectations for what’s possible and others now need to hit that mark.

Never, ever, ever compromise on ethical matters.

Even though I really liked the car, the customer service left me with shopper’s regret and a newfound appreciation for Lexus. After expressing my dissatisfaction, I asked if there was a way to ‘undo’ the transaction (about 2 weeks after I had the car). The Sales Manager texted me a shocking, under-the-table offer, stating that they would take the car back on four conditions…   

Naturally, I wasn’t comfortable with this type of shady behavior. So, rather than accept the offer, I shared it with the Company rep on the 800 line, told the dealership I was doing so, and the dealiership (in writing) retracted their offer. What’s the kicker? The Company rep again said there was nothing they could do.

Now that my feelings about this Brand have dropped to subzero temperatures, I’m certain there’s nothing they could possibly do to convince me to buy another car a few years down the road. Today, Brands need to ensure a balance between Consumers and Customers to thrive. This isn’t 1970 … Consumers won’t let Brands get away with just taking the money and running.

Two Tips to Building “Emotional Connection”

There’s no doubt that the Marketing world has progressed from “technology push” to “consumer pull”. Some great companies pride themselves on being consumer centric, and adopting “Consumer is Boss” mantras, which help guide innovation and marketing towards consumers’ needs and desires.

Yet many Brand Builders still find true emotional connection elusive. Common approaches include building an emotional benefit (“I feel”) into positioning statements, “showing” emotion in advertising (Kodak father-daughter wedding dance), and moving from one-way to interactive communications.   

While there’s no “one size fits all”, I believe that one of the best pathways to connecting with consumers on a deeper, more emotional level is to move beyond thinking about people as consumers, and start thinking about them as humans.

  • A consumer is defined as someone who pays to consume goods and services (Wikipedia).
  • Humans are defined more holistically… based on their larger well-developed brains, high levels of abstract reasoning, language, problem solving, sociality, and culture.

When we think about people as humans (vs. consumers), we take blinders off and magic can happen. Here are two very specific ways the human view can help:

Opportunity 1: Human-centered INSIGHTS.

A lot of evidence points to the power of an INSIGHT to drive Brand growth. Yet many Brands have insights that aren’t insights at all, or that don’t work because they’re too focused on consumerism and not focused enough on the broader understanding of a person’s life. Human Insights are generally not Category-specific, but your Brand can pre-empt and own a Human Insight in your Category.

Some of my favorite insights – that have built Brands – are, in fact, HUMAN Insights… fundamental truths about PEOPLE and what motivates them in life. They capture core human motivations that are not Brand or Category centric. Here are a few examples of Human Insights that Brands have brilliantly tapped: 

1. Always® – Girls feel boxed in by society telling them what they should and shouldn’t do. This is about girls and how they feel and why… it’s not about feminine care or Always®. But Always® taps into this with their “Like A Girl” movement. Always® wants every girl to stay confident / unstoppable. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gsw62NygooE

2. Rent The Runway® – Every woman deserves a Cinderella moment.  This insight is not about dresses or fashion. Rather, it is about tapping into the core human truth – in an inspirational way – that there is desire for the remarkable luxury experience. The Rent the Runway® Brand promise and business model gives women access to those experiences.  

3. Pampers® — There’s nothing we won’t do to make life #BetterForBabyThe message from Pampers® in this video is about all the good things people do for babies — from everyday acts of kindness to celebrating major life changes. In two days this commercial got over 1.5 million views on YouTube, and Pampers, by association, must be “better for baby”.   

4. Coke — The moments in life that are the most special are the moments we share with others. This is a fundamental human truth that could be tapped into by a wide range of Brands and Categories. The core idea behind Open Happiness was connection itself, rooted in the “shared moments” human insight.

Opportunity #2: Human Centered Storytelling

I can’t think of a Brand that enjoys a deeper connection with its consumers (“members”) than REI. This short blog: “What REI’s Marketing Strategy Says About the ‘Sale’ in Storytelling” sums up how best-in-class storytellers create magic. One of their key success principles is “Forget about the Product”. Counterintuitive? Maybe. Does it work? Absolutely.

“When your employer’s product sits beside brands as loud as its own, the task isn’t to sell people differently; it’s to see people differently.” Also check out REI’s Facebook page – all storytelling!

Bonus: When we focus on people as people, we will also have more empathy than when we’re focused on what a person will or won’t buy. The more empathetic you are as a Brand Builder, the more likely you will be to establish an emotional connection.


New Years Resolutions & Brand Stewardship

About 2/3’s of us make New Year’s Resolutions. Only 8% are kept. Lose weight, get organized, spend less, help others, more time with family… The reason most of us fail most of the time is simple. We’re instant gratification junkies. Doing something we don’t really want to do, something hard, for the promise of long-term gain eludes us.  

The same applies to Brands. We constantly face temptation to achieve short-term reward at a long-term cost. This risks devaluing a coveted asset. Temptations abound: move money from equity-building to price promo, muck up package with violators, reduce product efficacy to hit a price point, proliferate flavors losing focus, off equity promotion (“Buy Ariel Detergent get a FREE turkey”!). That really happened.

In our personal lives, there are principles we can follow to beat the odds. A simple one is “Implementation Intention”. The more specific we are about what we will change, the more likely that we will succeed. “Changing for Good” by Dr. James Prochaska is a wonderful book about habit change, with ‘how to’ guidance.

Same with Brand building. There are principles we can follow to increase the odds. Of course, this needs to be done as an AND to delivering the P/L. But just as the craving for a sweet often trumps the resolution to diet, the short-term often trumps the long-term in Brand land. To counteract this bias, leaders can institute practices that better balance long-term Brand Building and short-term results. My Top 10 that work:

  1. Appoint a Brand Steward with veto power on all marketing executions.  
  2. Have a clear and simple statement of the desired long-term Brand equity with buy-in from lead team.   
  3. Use robust briefing documents as a bridge between Equity statement and in-market executions (advertising, packaging, in-store promotion, etc.)
  4. Educate the organization broadly, early, and often on the desired equity and what it means for them. You must…, you can…, you can never…
  5. Have a clear Brand Portfolio or Brand Hierarchy that ensures everything in a Brand family borrows from and pays rent to the Brand equity, and clarifies how that will work.
  6. Have an Annual Brand Health Check, a high level, strategic meeting where Brand Equity choices are confirmed or refined, and where marketing executions are reviewed for consistency with desired equity.
  7. Visibly reward people and organizations that consistently honor the Brand equity. Make them heroes!
  8. Institute consequences for people / organizations that mortgage a Brand’s future for short-term gain. Put them in roles where they can’t harm the Brand.
  9. Enlist internal ‘early adopters’ and Agency Leaders as ambassadors of the Brand Stewardship agenda.
  10. Measure and reward long-term Brand health – tie to compensation and promotion.

What are you doing to save your Brand from becoming a broken-resolution statistic? 

How Heroism Hurts Brands?

A new study by Wharton Professor, Keisha Cutright, has broad implications for Brand building. The study — Doing It the Hard Way: How Low Control Drives Preferences for High-Effort Products and Services — finds that “when people feel a lack of control over their lives, they will seek out products that require them to put in some effort – and in turn reignite their belief in being able to achieve a positive outcome”.  

Hero Brands

Helper Brands


Do it all for you… we make it very easy

We help, but “you have to work really hard”

Athletic Shoe Example

Put on shoes and we’ll do all the work for you

Put on shoes, and if you work really hard, we’ll help you toward your goal of losing weight…


It’s Counterintuitive. I’d expect that when people feel low control over life outcomes, they’d want heroes to ‘rescue’ them. But the study finds that the opposite is true. Feelings of low control are associated with preference for helper, not hero, Brands.

Hero Bias is Problematic. In my experience, there is a general hero-bias among brand builders (not you, of course!). This suggests that many Brand messages don’t resonate because they unknowingly undervalue the importance of empowering consumers.

Demographics and ‘need states’ matter. Demographically, lower income and older consumers tend to feel less control. But all consumers, in some situations or need states, can feel low control (e.g. – a disease diagnosis or stock market crash).

Nicorette® got this right decades ago with “You Can Do It, We Can Help”:

They focused on committed quitters who knew there was no “EASY button”. They knew that they would have to work hard and that they needed help. With the committed quitter target and the “helper” positioning, the value proposition involved a step down patch that helped gradually reduce nicotine intake. As further help, they offered a Committed Quitters Program with personalized tools.

A more recent Nicorette® mini-lozenge ad promises to “help relieve cravings… so you can quit one cigarette at a time. Helps you go from one little win to another until you reach your goal”.

Do these Brands have it right? What do you think? 

  • Cheerios® — Works to bring the benefits of oats to you
  • Special K® – Strengthen your willpower
  • Swiffer® Sweep & Trap – Designed for tackling messes big and small! Rotating blades pick up large particles while a Swiffer Sweeper dry cloth traps dirt and dust
  • Google® – Organize world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful
  • AllState®– You’re in good hands
  • Nationwide® – On your side
  • State Farm® – Like a good neighbor
  • Apple® – Empowering people through technology. Genius Bar at your service.  

What about your brands? Whether explicit or not, most brands convey helper or hero in some way. And as Robert Frost said… “that can make all the difference”.

Article/video on the Wharton study:


Powerful Marketing Lessons from Canyon Ranch®

I just spent a transformational week at Canyon Ranch®, a health & wellness resort in Arizona. I went at the suggestion of a client who had just been… I learned a lot about health and wellness, as expected. I also got some powerful lessons on brand building:

  1. Power of purpose, which emerged from the founder’s personal wake-up call and transformation — at age 52. Canyon Ranch® exists “To create an inspirational environment where people could come to pursue optimal health and wellness, and appreciate “The Power of Possibility”.
  2. Power of word of mouth. My decision to go was entirely due to ONE person’s personal testimony. 
  3. Power of target choice and understanding. Focus is women 40+ with whom the ranch mission resonates, and the understanding of and empathy for this group was palpable throughout the experience.
  4. Power of “Point-of-Market-Entry”. Recent grads (aged 14-24) are FREE with a paying adult during off season. This undoubtedly makes an imprint, and increases odds that a “grad” will be a paying guest in future.
  5. Power of building Trial AND Loyalty. A 20% discount is used to attract new guests; AND membership options reward guests who commit to a week a year for 10 years.
  6. Power of flawless execution of the desired consumer experience. Everything about the experience fits the purpose. For example, cell phone use in public areas is strictly forbidden. Once I recovered from withdrawal, this was a delightful rule! 😉
  7. Power of Employees as Brand Advocates. Employees are encouraged to use the facility at no cost, and naturally become Brand ambassadors. They interact with guests, but aren’t given a message track that would undermine authenticity. Each had a personal story to tell.
  8. Power of Storytelling starting with the California “fat farm” story about the founder, now 85 who still lives on and largely owns the ranch.
  9. Power of exceptional customer service. Attention to detail, going extra mile, and terrific staff-guest ratio, support this. Example: during your last meal, you order a “to go” meal, which is waiting for you, nicely packaged, in your car at departure.   
  10. Power of putting guests best interest at heart. There were things to buy, but no hard sales. Rather, they offered web-links as resources for myriad wellness products/services.
  11. Power of community. I participated in a group program focused on healthy weight. There were 20 of us in all shapes, sizes, colors, genders, and walks of life. We fast became a community… now we’re on cyberspace. This enriched our experience and our affinity with Brand.
  12. Power of the familiar (vs. radical habit change). The philosophy is all about modifying existing habits. Examples: Reduce portion size vs. changing foods consumed; adding interval training to a favorite workout.
  13. Power of Personalization. Everyone is encouraged to customize a health and wellness program to meet his or her personal needs. What is the best kind of exercise to do? The kind YOU enjoy the most!
For me, Canyon Ranch®, was exactly as billed: “an inspirational environment where I could pursue better health and wellness, and appreciate “The Power of Possibility”. And as a bonus, I got a great dose of inspiration on “The Power of Brilliant Brand Building”.  Here I share that with you. And if you want a ‘dose’ of tips for Healthy Living, a wonderful quick read is: “Mel’s Tips for Healthy Living” by Mel Zuckerman, Founder of Canyon Ranch®. 

Images are from Canyon Ranch website and are used to illustrate learning points.

Counterintuitive Brand Differentiators (Terminix story)

I recently returned from a 2-week trip late Friday night. Exhausted, I slept-in on Saturday, forgetting a routine Terminix® Pest Control visit I had scheduled. When I awoke, after the appointment time, I wondered if I’d missed the doorbell? Or was this service was an outdoor only visit? I’d need to find out.

But the very thought of “finding out” was daunting:

  • Dial 800 number
  • Find/enter account number
  • Listen to option lists
  • And more option lists!
  • Press buttons to identify myself and my problem
  • Wait on hold
  • Say “no” – to “do you want to take a survey?”
  • Finally, talking to someone in a call center who may or may not know the story…  

And so, I procrastinated. A few days later, I found on my front door a note from Keith who worked for Terminix®, and had been at my house. The note read as follows:

Terminix note

WOW! As a consumer, I could call a real person – who was at my house and would know what was what. I would talk to him or get a call back — within 24 hours! Nirvana.

As a Marketer, these thoughts crossed my mind:

  • Clever marketers, even in mature industries where there is little functional differentiation to be had, can create entirely new points-of-difference.
  • A Brand Point-of-Difference that has nothing to do with why I am in the Category can create fierce loyalty and advocacy. 
  • Consider personal service PODs as “back to the future” opportunities to seize in today’s impersonal world.

The lesson: Look for potential Brand differentiators that may have little direct connection to why consumers are in your Category.

Consumers Best Interest at Heart

Consumers want to do business with companies that have their best interest at heart. But what does this look like to consumers? Some years ago, I had the privilege of serving as an Advisor to Dr. Gerry Zaltman’s “Mind of the Market” Lab at Harvard. “Best interest at heart” was one of many studies conducted using the Zaltman Metaphor Elicitation Technique (ZMET), leading to mapping of consumers deep thoughts about a company that has their best interests at heart. 

In “Essential Insights into the Mind of the Market”, Dr. Zaltman documents dignity as a central characteristic of a “best interest at heart” company. Related thoughts include moral character and honesty. This is easy to “head nod” to, but which companies really behave this way… and how do consumers know it? 

The A&E® Door Company has shown me repeatedly that they have my best interest at heart. How? I called them a year ago requesting service for a non-working garage remote. They told me to get on a step-stool in the garage, remove plastic cover on unit above, press a reset button, and then click the remote. It worked! I’ve successfully repeated this a few times when the problem recurred. Today I called A&E® again. I told them that there was a problem and this time I knew that a simple do-it-myself reset wouldn’t suffice. Given cold temps and incomplete closure, I wanted a service call… today. 

I explained that the car remotes didn’t work at all, but this time the button ON the garage wall only worked if I held it down while the door opened or closed. “Even with that, it won’t close completely”. The A&E® rep said, “It sounds like a problem with the safety eyes”, and asked me to check if there was anything obstructing the view of the eyes. “NO”, I answered. Then he asked me to see if the safety eyes were parallel with each other – pointing straight across the line where the garage should close. I noticed that one of the eyes was, in fact, slightly off center and pointing toward a car in the garage. It likely got moved by accident, while moving garbage cans in and out of the garage. A&E® also told me to wipe the lenses on the eyes in case dirt was causing the problem. I repositioned the eye and wiped the lens. VOILA — the garage worked perfectly!

This is a company that, on multiple occasions, could have taken my money — and didn’t. Their behavior epitomizes the dignity, moral character, and honesty that consumers want to see from companies… behaviors that show “best interest at heart”.   

Does your Company/Brand have consumers best interests at heart? And how do they know this? 

Are you following “Reliability” off a cliff?

Observation: Emphasis on reliability over validity unwittingly stifles Marketing innovation.

Roger Martin (former Director of Monitor Company and Dean of the Rotman School of Management) teaches the following lesson on reliability and validity:

  • Reliability focuses on producing a predictable, consistent outcome. The IQ test focused on ‘little logical puzzles’ is highly reliable. “The problem is it doesn’t really predict much about how you’ll do in life – other than that, it’s really good”.
  • Validity focuses on producing outcomes you really want. “Emotional Intelligence is a less reliable test… you tradeoff some reliability to get something that takes more things into consideration – including fuzzier variables – to get something more valid”.

Roger asks: “Do you want consistency or do you want an outcome you’ll really like?”.

In the world of Marketing, especially in large companies, I often see Reliability trumping Validity. One example of this is following marketing mix models (MMM) ‘off cliffs’. MMM’s are, like IQ tests, one great tool to aid judgment. The tool has many strengths and important limitations. Much like an IQ test reveals nothing about a person’s people skills, MMM reveals nothing about how a highly targeted campaign aimed at new household acquisition performs over an appropriate time period. Yet many companies have made MMM the one holy grail upon which all spend decisions are based. This feels safe (nobody ever got fired for MMM based spends), but leads to bad decisions. Rather, companies need a suite of analytical tools to aid judgment in making valid spend decisions… decisions that produce the desired outcome.

Another example is in the targeting realm. Using a quant segmentation study and picking 1-2 of 5 segments is very simple and reliable, and has some predictability. We know a lot of facts about those people and can measure how we’re doing against them. However, to make valid target choice (one that delivers the desired outcome), looking at consumers through different lenses, including some fuzzy ones, is necessary.

The other danger of Reliability you might want to address is that reliable systems assume the conditions of the past are unchanged in the present and future. MMM based decisions are ones based on history in a world that is changing more rapidly than ever.

Interestingly, Marketing leaders prioritize validity in recruiting. A suite of tools are leveraged including: on-line screenings for multiple intelligences, interviews, formal reference checks, informal reference checks, etc… Why do we accept a Valid, albeit less reliable, system in this arena, but follow Reliability off a cliff in multi-million dollar spend decisions… with far greater financial risk than a bad hire?

Roger notes that “Over time, forces of Reliability tend to overwhelm forces of Validity in large companies… and it often takes the CEO to force Validity back in”. How does this play out in your company? What might you do to “force validity back into the system”?

Understanding Drivers – ‘Make or Break’ for your Brands

One of the most important ingredients in successful Brand Positioning is fully understanding both Category Drivers and Brand Drivers. This alone can make or break a Brand, and is surprisingly often not well understood.

  • Category Drivers are motivations behind participation in a Category. People buy laundry detergents to clean clothes. People stay in hotels to get a good night’s sleep away from home. Ironically, Category Drivers are often not drivers of Brand choice. A hotel that emphasizes a good night’s sleep won’t get my business because all of the hotels in my consideration set provide this.
  • Brand Drivers determine which Brand a Category consumer will select. In Laundry, if most Brands meet or exceed cleaning expectations, this lead Category Driver may not discriminate Brand choice. Instead, drivers of Brand Choice may be scent or color protection.  I prefer to stay at the Ritz because they treat me like royalty. That’s the Brand Driver and their Point-of-Difference.

A classic positioning dilemma is whether to try to establish differentiation on key Category driver(s). Two questions on Category and Brand drivers can help sort this out:

  1. Is the primary Category driver ownable by anyone or has it become table stakes? In oral care, cavity protection was once the key Category driver and a differentiator between Brands; however, over time, it has become table stakes — a necessary Point-of-Parity for all Brands and not differentiating for any Brand. This explains Crest’s broadening of its positioning to “Healthy Beautiful Smiles for Life” and launch of new products such as Crest White Strips®.
  2. If the primary Category Driver is up for grabs, is your Brand able to take this on? In general, a Brand that enjoys or desires leadership, can try to ‘own’ the key Category driver. Johnnie Walker® knew that the whisky key Category Driver was success, most powerfully expressed as ‘progress’. The ‘inspires men to progress’ positioning — brought to life with the highly successful Keep Walking campaign — is an excellent example of a leading Brand ‘owning’ a category driver.

In contrast, a Brand that aspires to be a meaningful albeit not top Category player may be well served establishing a Point-of-Parity on the key Category Drivers and a strong POD on a secondary Category driver (e.g. – Gain® in Laundry with a POD on Cleaning and a POP on scent).

Why do consumers participate in your Category? And what drives their Brand selection? Can you establish superiority on a key Category Driver? If not, what Points-of-Parity will be required to ‘play’ and what secondary Category drivers can become primary Points-of-Difference and drivers of Brand choice for your Brand? 

On Empathy: Why Should You Care?

Article contributed by Cindy Tripp, Design Thinking Specialist, Leonora Polonsky & Associates LLC

I love Tire Discounters.  How can that be? 

It’s simple — Tire Discounters has empathy for me:

  • They greet me with respect and have a comfortable waiting room. Often they provide immediate service, even without an appointment.
  • They know that I only want the best tires and don’t try to sell me off-brands; they do help me time my purchase to get best deals.
  • There is very little turnover so they know me despite the long purchase cycle.
  • They go above and beyond, like staying late to fix my tire on a cold, rainy evening.
  • Even the weekly humor on their signs makes me smile.

Like other Brands that show consumer empathy, Tire Discounters is rapidly growing.

Building empathy requires leaving a business executives’ comfort zone and stepping into
the lives of the people they serve. Simple tips for building empathy:

Path to Empathy

Your Stance

Reframe your view from research mode (“target”) to human mode (person)

Watch your language.  If you focus on targets, you will spend energy aiming arrows at them.

Focus on a few people & really get to know them; be open to listening to “extremes” of your potential user base

Enter into her life versus expecting her to enter your brand’s world

Understand her hopes and dreams in the broader context of her life

Be curious, without judging

Imagine her story and what looks like help to her

For now, don’t consider feasibility issues

Each time we move out of research mode into human mode, we build empathy for our consumers and something magical happens. It’s not easy, but it is a great way to achieve business goals and personal fulfillment by making a difference in consumers lives. Hey, if a tire store can do it, so can you.

Barking Dog Teaches Marketer about Brand Integrity

“Integrity is a concept of consistency of actions, values, methods, measures, principles, expectations, and outcomes. In ethics, integrity is regarded as the honesty and truthfulness or accuracy of one’s actions”. — Wikipedia

My experience this weekend with Kimpton’s “pet friendly” policy was a lesson on brand integrity. I was at a Kimpton in DC, sans pet. Their purported pet friendliness didn’t phase me until I returned to my room late, to be greeted by a loud and persistent bark next door. I got on line to check their “pet policy”, hoping to find a provision (e.g. – if pet causes disturbance, pet will be xyz”). Instead I read the following.

Disappointed but desperate, I called front desk and… complained. Surprisingly, they said they would “take care of it ASAP” — within minutes there was silence. After joking about the cocktail they gave the dog, we slept well. The next morning, we asked the front desk how they worked this magic. They told us that if owner can control noise, that’s step one. If not, they remove dog from room and “play with him” till owner returns. No kennels, no cocktails. Just play + love. We then noticed water bowls and biscuits at the entry, and staff members who were all pet lovers.

Kimpton walks the talk on pet friendly. AND their point-of-difference with pets doesn’t jeopardize their delivery of human guest delight. As Brand Strategists, we make choices about what equities we want consumers to associate with our Brands. But that is only the very beginning. As former P&G CEO AG Lafley said, “execution is the only strategy consumers see”. Are you delivering on your chosen equities with unwavering integrity that wows consumers?

PS — Note next day from hotel manager with bottle of wine and chocolate. Happy pets, happy humans!

Crossing (Perilous) Boundaries

Stretching a Brand into adjacent Categories can be one of the best ways to build shareholder value — and one of the most perilous. Arm & Hammer®, Dove®, Marriott®, Dole®, Disney®, and Crayola® got it right. But Brand graveyards are full of adjacencies gone bad: Harley Davidson Perfume®, Virgin Cola®, Olay Cosmetics®, and Ben Gay Aspirin®. Who wants to ingest a cream that burns?

You’re thinking “obviously, those wouldn’t fly”; hindsight is 20/20. No doubt great cases were made for each of these flops and countless others.

Here are some simple tips for Crossing Boundaries right:

  1. Start strong: (i.e. – Brand is growing share in current Categories). Why share vs. sales? A Brand that’s losing sales, but gaining share in a declining Category, might be stretchable (e.g. –  landscape changes require re-defining “where to play” such as document deliver to overnight e-commerce package delivery).
  2. Know the Basket: Cross-Category shopping basket understanding is the key. If a premium Ice Cream Brand with a loyal following wants to expand, a smart first step is identifying which Categories over-index among its ice cream buyers.
  3. Leverage a transferable Point-of-Difference (POD): What’s important in real estate? Location, Location, Location. What’s important in Brand adjacencies? Transferable POD. Transferable POD. Transferable POD. Think Disney® taking fun, family, magical entertainment across myriad Categories (theme parks, hotels/resorts, cruises, movies, shows, apparel, toys/games, theater…).
  4. Transferable POD trumps Category Proximity: Consumers view Arm & Hammer® as pure, gentle, versatile, effective, environmentally safe, and economical. Recognizing this Transferable POD, Arm & Hammer® has established successful businesses in Personal, Oral, Fabric, and Pet Care. 
  5. Scout for insights in analogously connected Categories: If your Brand is going to enter an established Category, you’ll need a new angle or way in. Rick Seibold (Initiator) is pioneering “analogously connected category” immersions as a way to uncover truly new insights with links to Transferable POD.  Categories which at the surface appear to have nothing in common can be rich sources of new insights (e.g. – CPG and industrial mining).
  6. Consumer permission, not ideation: Brands with compelling transferable PODs can generally stretch farther than marketers think they can. Consumer Psychologist Dr. Carol Berning notes that “companies are generally surprised by where consumers will allow a Brand to go”. What’s more useful is to first do ideation and strategy work, and then expose consumers to simple stimuli that capture the differentiated benefit the Brand would offer in a new Category.

How well positioned are you to Cross (perilous) Boundaries?

Are You Faithful?

Article contributed by Matt Carcieri
Strategic Marketer and Branding Expert, Leonora Polonsky & Associates LLC

Brand-building is an exercise in self-discipline.

What consumers value in a brand is its familiarity and clarity of meaning.  As brand-builders, the way we create business value is by deepening that familiarity and intensifying that meaning over time.  That requires a steadfast commitment to a time-honored course.

Take Coke® for example. Who wouldn’t want its brand-building and business-building results?  Coke has achieved them by remaining committed (for the most part) to a firm set of identity guidelines: happiness, refreshment, the color red, its iconic bottle shape, its signature white script.  Even in its current holiday execution, a Coke can looks a lot like its 1970s predecessor.  Over that same time period, Pepsi® has wandered the branding wilderness.

Staying faithful isn’t easy for marketers.  The temptations are everywhere.  You want to be sexy for a younger audience.  An enticing, new segment beckons.  A hot, new initiative seeks to be noticed on shelf.

In the end, however, the best way to find and keep love is to remain true to yourself.  It starts with a set of identity guidelines that capture your brand standards as simply and clearly as possible.  There can be no ambiguity, and the best way to do that is with the fewest possible words and visuals.  Volvo® is boxy and “safe.”  Coors Light® is silver, mountains and “cold.”

If this was “smashed,” even a dog could still tell it was Target

Then you need to execute your marketing with “creative rigidity.”  That is, use your fixed assets in delightfully imaginative ways.

How do you know if you’re faithfully executing your brand identity?  Use Martin Lindstrom’s “smashability” test.  If you tore up your print ad or shattered your new package, would consumers still recognize your brand in the pieces?  If not, you’re not being faithful.

The Bible says that faithfulness yields fruitfulness.  So what do you hold sacred in your brand?  Do you have firm identity guidelines?  And are they sufficient to yield smashably excellent work?

Hey, Watch Your Language!

This warning, often spoken by parents to their kids, is one Brand Builders can benefit from as well. As Brand Builders, we make choices about words — sometimes without sufficient attention to the power of words — to frame propositions to our advantage… or not. 

One of the beauties of taking your language up a notch – to make it more consumer-resonant and distinctive – is that it’s essentially FREE. Good language isn’t more expensive than bad language. Also, what about the power of language to impact pricing potential and value perceptions?  Would you pay more for a “face cleansing wipe/towelette” or an Olay® Daily Facial? Consider the different opportunities you have to put words to work for your Brands:

Product Descriptors

Orville Redenbacher’s® Gourmet Popping Corn

or Olay® Daily Facials

Scent • Form • Variant Descriptions

“Relax with Dawn® Mediterranean Lavender Scent”… or enjoy the power of Dawn® while improving the look and feel of your hands with Dawn’s Olay® Hand Renewal offering    


Louis Vuitton®: “Hand made by Craftsmen with exquisite materials”.

Free Range eggs, Mountain Grown Folgers®… 


Evian®: “Naturally pure spring water from the French Alps

Service • Support

How much does Apple® benefit from the words “Genuis Bar” vs. “Help Desk”, “Service Desk”, or “Customer Service”? Pretty genius I would say!


Chevrolet Malibu®: “French-stitched, leather appointed seats and noise-dampening acoustic-laminated glass”.

Might a simple “inventory” of your language – and some brainstorming – point to some really low hanging fruit to build more consumer-resonant, distinctive Brands with little or no incremental investment?

Inside Out Brand Building

All Brand Builders invest to build external consumer resonance. Exceptional Brand Builders invest in what Lisa Hillenbrand at P&G dubbed Inside Out Brand Building — activities that result in employees understanding, embracing, and activating the Brand. Often, issues with external communications are manifestations of internal problems.

Top 10 ways to ensure your employees build your Brand:

  1. Discover and Communicate compelling Brand Ideal. One that is rooted in fundamental human values and ignites employee passion (Red Bull: Energize the World). 
  2. Recruit Employees who share Brand Values/Ideal. Nike seeks out employees who are passionate about sports and fitness. IBM hires people who want to create a Smarter Planet (“I am an IBMer” has gone viral). Red Bull screens sampling team applicants for high personal energy level.
  3. Build Culture around the Ideal. Zappos immerses new employees in its customer-obsessed culture for weeks and then offers a $1000 quitting bonus. Why? Because employees who bite don’t have the commitment required. Nike embeds its culture throughout its work environments, with jogging trails, fitness clubs and even a sports pub at its world headquarters.
  4. Immersive Employee Experiences. Employees who live with a family in rural Venezuela and hand wash clothes with them will build empathy and commitment that are unattainable through reading reports, charts, and statistics.
  5. Academies. Many strong Brands use interactive “classroom” training sessions for employees to explore, practice, and internalize what the Brand is and isn’t.
  6. Brand “Bibles”: Compilations of Strategic/Executional choices that establish that Brand is bigger than any one person/opinion and  “do” and “don’t” guidelines. Hershey Guidelines state that flavors “must be” cocoa based, “can be” a specified range of flavors, and “can never be” alcohol filled.   
  7. Induction. When I joined Crisco Shortening in 1985 (as a native New Yorker!), I was immediately sent to meet consumers in Birmingham, Alabama (aka “Crisco Country”) as one part of my induction.
  8. Leadership Behavior/Communication: Everything Leaders say/do matters and should be fully consistent with the Brand Ideal. CEO of a green focused company shouldn’t drive a Hummer.
  9. Rewards: Make heroes out of employees who demonstrate exemplary Brand Building behavior (e.g. – hotel housekeeper who went “dumpster diving” to find a guest’s mouth guard).
  10. Brand Health Checks: Annual “audits” to see if Marketing executions are fully consistent with Brand; Action plan to address internal and external barriers.

Are you doing enough Inside Out Brand Building?

What’s More Important? Your Car or Your Brand?

Most of us believe in “annual check-ups”. We visit our Docs for annual checkups. We have our cars serviced every 10,000 miles. We’re on tilt, but we pause for these check-ups. After all, early detection can be life-saving.

What about our Brands? Do we step back from daily fires to systematically assess their Health? In “The Brand Report Card” (HBR), Tuck Professor Keller suggests tools/approaches to ensure a good long-term prognosis:

  • Brand Report Card: Grade across 10 indicators (e.g. – Consistency, Sensible Hierarchy, Relevance).
  • Brand Inventory: “A look in the mirror… [at] the stuff you send out into the world” – C. Grams, Former Red Hat Exec (see photo); Consider full spectrum of what consumer’s see/experience.
  • Brand Exploratory: Wide net immersion in consumers’ Brand associations
brand inventory

Regardless of what you call them (Check Ups, Health Checks, Audits), these “step backs” can be lifesaving for your Brand. A few suggestions for great outcomes:

  1. Focus on long-term Brand Health using agreed criteria and metrics. Having an actionable segmentation and clear target is critical. But how do we know if our segmentation and target are good enough?
  2. Focus on discovery and dialogue, not scores.
  3. Have a meeting to create a date with destiny that elevates focus on this “important, not urgent” work. Meeting ≠ Dog + Pony Show.
  4. Leverage diversity of perspectives to drive objectivity and alignment. Include Top Execs, Functional Leaders, Agency and Regional leaders, internal/external objective experts.
  5. Timing Matters. Schedule to maximize actionability.

Little to lose. Much to gain. Why not do Brand Check Ups?

Want to GROW Profit +400% ?

Interested in ideas about Brand Purpose/Ideals and Promise that can sharpen your Brand positioning and improve your profitability by 400%? I hope this will clarify how Brand Purpose/Ideals and Brand Promise are different and similar, and inspire you to pursue a Purpose Driven path for greater growth.

Brand Purpose/Ideal

Why a Brand exists besides earning money. The difference a Brand aspires to make in the world. Speaks broadly to Brand stakeholders including company employees (NASA Janitor:  “My job is to enable a man to go to the moon”).  Examples:

  • Redbull exists to Energize the World
  • Southwest exists to Give People Freedom to Fly
  • Disney exists to Use Imagination to Bring Magic to Millions

Merits of Purpose Driven Brands have been highlighted by Sisodia (“Firms of Endearment”), Sinek (“Start With Why”), Spence (“It’s Not What You Sell, It’s What you Stand For”) and Kantar (“SuperCorp”). In his new book, “GROW – How Ideals Power Growth at the World’s Greatest Companies”, former P&G CMO Stengel shows that Ideals Driven Brands deliver 400% more profit than S&P 500.

Brand Promise

Tells consumers how Brand will make their life better. Typically a central element in Brand positioning (aka: Key Benefit, Point-of-Difference).

  • Ritz promises to Treat Guests Like Royalty
  • Disney promises Fun, Family, Magical Entertainment
  • Google promises Easy Access To Information Everywhere

With the Brand Purpose/Ideal movement gaining steam, should Brands articulate a Purpose, a Promise, or both? For sure, Brand Leaders should be able to answer both the Purpose/Ideal and Promise questions (We exist to… We promise to…).  In some cases, they are same. Is Pampers “Helping Mother’s Care for their Baby’s/Toddler’s Healthy, Happy Development” a Purpose or a Promise?

In other cases, it is helpful to have two statements (see Disney above). Ralph Lauren might find the following distinction helpful: We exist to help people experience an aspirational lifestyle of timeless luxury and elegance; We promise a feeling of Power and Success.

Is your Brand driven by a higher Ideal, in line with the +400%Stengel Brands? How does your Brand Ideal relate to your Promise? 

What’s Your Story?

A story is a narrative designed to interest, create a connection, amuse, or instruct. People are wired for story. Stories fire people up, inspire, strike a chord, capture imagination, and build affinity. Stories create memories. They transmit information efficiently.

Brand Stories are a powerful tool for building Brands. In addition to evoking emotional connections with consumers, Brand Stories can inspire employees and Agency Creatives. There are many different types of Brand Stories including:

The apocryphal Nordstrom’s Tire return story has all the right stuff. A guy walks into a Fairbanks, Alaska, Nordstrom’s to return snow tires. Never mind that Nordstrom’s doesn’t sell tires. The clerk sees the price on the tires and hands the man $145. This legend has bolstered Nordstrom’s image by conveying that the customer is always right, even when he’s provably wrong. And it illustrates the qualities of an enduring Brand Story including:

  • Linked to Brand Purpose and/or Promise
  • Conflict/Tension with Brand as protagonist 
  • Short, Simple, Sticky, Spreadable 
  • Mildly incongruent

Brand Builders can also use Stories to share consumer insights and build consumer empathy (e.g. – Story sharing after ethnographic research). 

It’s equally easy to create negative Brand Stories. On a recent trip to Asia, my luggage was lost. Rushed upon arrival, I asked the concierge if he could get me deodorant. He said “yes, but we’ll have to charge you 2x the price”. I paid extra bit, but won’t patronize that hotel and will post my story on-line. How are you leveraging the power of Story to build your Brand?

Non-Functional Benefits — Precision Positioning

Many Brands are missing an opportunity to define the non-functional aspects of a Brand’s positioning more deliberately and precisely.  Capturing the following basic positioning elements is standard fare:  Promise, Points-of-Difference, Points-of-Parity, Personality.  Brands are also increasingly articulating a Purpose and underlying Values. 

Some go the extra step of distinguishing between Functional and Emotional Benefits.  The term “Emotional Benefits” is often used synonymously with “Non-Functional Benefits”.  This distinction between “Functional” and “Emotional” (meaning non-functional) is helpful, but insufficient.  With mounting evidence that the Brand Building game is won or lost on non-functional considerations, shouldn’t more attention be paid to different types of non-functional benefits? 

  • Emotional: When I buy or use this Brand I feel _________ .
  • Self-Expressive: When I buy or use this brand, I am _________
  • When I buy or use this brand, the type of people I relate to are __________ .

I may feel secure in a Volvo, but a Lexus tells the world that I am successful.  When I play golf with a Titleist Pro V 1 ball, I can relate to some really good golfers.

Consider some of your favorite Brands.  What role do these different types of non-functional benefits play in your affinity for the Brand?  And how about the Brand(s) you steward?  What functional, emotional, self-expressive, and social benefits do you — or might you — deliver and communicate?  How would your consumers fill in the blanks on the above questions?  How would you like your consumers to fill in these blanks?  Are you sufficiently deliberate and precise in articulating the emotional, self-expressive, and/or social benefit associations you aspire to establish and then creating experiences that deliver?

How Human Is Your Brand?

Article contributed by Suzanne Tosolini
Brand Strategist – Leonora Polonsky & Associates LLC

At the 2011 Cannes Festival of Creativity, there was an overriding message:  Brands need to become more human.

This humanity is evident when a brand tells its story in a way that entertains, teaches, or provokes and shares its values and ideals with the world. Nike’s Film Grand Prix winner Write the Future does it well, as did 2010 winner Old Spice “The Man your Man could Smell Like”, which went on to win this years Cyber Grand Prix for it’s online follow up Responses. You can easily tell what these brands believe in.  And you can relate to them in a human way.

After Cannes I was in Italy, which cemented my point of view.  Brands could learn from Italians on how to humanize themselves:  Waiters enjoy telling you what to order in a way that makes you feel special, each gift comes with a story, and every purchase feels like the deal of the year.  It’s all about stories and how they make you feel.  Does the homemade olive oil from the neighbor in Tuscany taste better?  Is the sweater, bought in a store where the salesperson informs you secretly that it’s made with the same wool used by Prada, really as precious as it feels?

So brands like Innocent, Method, Whole Foods, Zappos, and Apple are winning consumers hearts and minds due, in part, to the stories they create and share.  Components of a good brand story

  • Seed conversations around the story
  • Be true to brand history with a fresh, relevant twist
  • Be authentic
  • Stay constant over the long term
  • Be passionate
  • Make ideals and values apparent in the story

What stories does your brand have and how can you use them like Italians do?

Contact Suzanne: suzanne@leonorapolonsky.com

Discountitis, Value, & Brand Equity

Al Reis’ recent Ad Age article “Discountitus” points out that in some industries brand differentiation is history, and success lies in deep discounts (airlines, insurance, retail). Another recent article highlighted the continued migration from Brands to Private Label. These articles raise an important question. When should “value” be part of a Brand’s Position, either as a Point-of-Difference (POD) or Point-of-Parity (POP)?

Value POD? Every Brand needs to deliver a strong value, but only Brands for which value is a central differentiator should establish a value POD (e.g. – Walmart). For Luxury Brands (think Tiffany, Ritz), price plays a central role in how consumers view the Brand; however, brand positioning focuses on what makes the Brand special, not price or value. Ritz: Feeling Like Royalty.

Value POP? Some Brands create a Competitive POP on value to negate a Competitive POD. As Professor Keller has shown, to establish a POP, a Brand simply needs to be “in the zone”. Target’s “Expect More. Pay Less.” creates a POP on value to compete with Walmart, while still focusing on their POD. In Categories which are heavily price/value driven (perhaps one with high P/L shares), establishing value credentials may be a Category Requirement even in the absence of needing to negate a competitive POD.

No Value POP or POD? In general, all of a Brand’s communication should be on equity. So, if a Brand doesn’t aspire to establish a value POP or POD, it shouldn’t be a focus of communication. While there might be a tactical exception, it can be a slippery slope.

Value Communications? Where value is part of a Brand’s desired equity, either as a POD or POP, there are many clever and well proven ways to understand consumer psychology around price/value and cleverly reframe perceptions in communications. The right reframing approach and execution can have a surprisingly big and fast business impact.

Dumpster Diving to Delight

Brand stories are a wonderfully rich way to share defining moments that epitomize the essence of a Brand. My favorite is the legend about a man in Alaska who took a pair of used snow tires to Nordstrom’s return counter. He was asked what he paid and promptly given a full refund – without question. This story epitomizes Nordstrom’s customer service credo: The customer is always right, even when he’s provably wrong.

I lived one such story last week. I was a guest at Adobe Grand Villas, a Bed & Breakfast in Sedona, Arizona. I picked Adobe Grand based on reviews on Trip Advisor. It was the #1 rated Sedona property. Reviews were chock full of stories about extraordinary service. The villa we stayed in (Timbers) was spectacular, with a bathroom the size of most hotel rooms, complete with a large hot tub and fireplace (http://www.adobegrandvillas.com/rooms-timbers.htm) The guest book in the villa was filled with stories about above-and-beyond service.

Upon return home, we realized that we accidentally threw away a tiny $500 mouth-guard in a tissue (a clear bit of plastic large enough to cover only 4 front teeth). Grasping for straws, we called Adobe. They were apologetic and empathetic, but did not offer hope. “It could be anywhere in the dumpster by now”. Three days later, a small package from Adobe Grand was in our mailbox – the mouth-guard, found by the innkeeper who “dumpster dove” to find and return the missing treasure. Our story is now part of the intricately crafted Adobe Grand tapestry on Trip Advisor. It’s already been read by hundreds of potential customers.

It’s not every day that a Brand has a chance to “Dumpster Dive” to inspire “loyalty beyond reason”… to create stories that build a Brand legacy. That said, I bet many Brands miss daily opportunities to show what they’re really made of and create stories. What is your Brand doing to surprise and delight in a way that lives the Brand promise/values and creates “loyalty beyond reason”?