Brand Mindshare Wars: Flip the Script to Win the Game

Marketing Savvy


For years Avis struggled to make money as a distant number two behind Hertz.

But in 1962, Avis launched a brilliant marketing campaign with an assist from the ad agency Doyle Dane Bernbach and shook up the car rental market with the now iconic “We try harder” tagline.

The message resonated. Within a year, Avis had earned its first annual profit in more than a decade and was on its way to closing the distance with Hertz. The marketing campaign was so successful that Avis stuck with the tagline for—and this may be a world record—50 years.

When I think about that seminal Avis-Hertz battle, it reminds me of the timeless lesson taught by Al Ries and Jack Trout in their pioneering 1981 work, Positioning: The battle for the mind: if you win the mind, you win the marketplace.

Hertz had been around since 1918 while Avis started in 1946. But Avis discovered a brilliant way to neutralize Hertz’s first-mover advantage and established itself as one of the two major brands in its category. It’s a lesson to keep in mind as we head into the final weeks of 2015.

As head of product and corporate marketing, the topic of how to establish brand leadership comes up frequently. There’s not one best answer, and the specifics obviously differ in each situation, but the right approach will always embrace the central insight of Ries and Trout: Effective brand positioning is as much a battle for the mind as it is a battle for the market.

Don’t follow the leader

Being first to market, companies such as Nike and Sam Adams made the best of their good fortune and cultivated strong consumer brand recognition before any challengers could arise.

But only one company can be first. What do the rest do? Well, here’s what they shouldn’t do: They won’t succeed against the leader by doing the exact same thing. Instead, go find a weakness in the established leader, and then perform a judo move so as to turn your rival’s strength into a weakness.

Easier said than done? Maybe, but consider these examples:

When Mercedes Benz marketed its brand as the luxury choice, BMW didn’t respond with a carbon-copy approach—it found a weakness and flipped it around. In a brilliant maneuver BMW repositioned Mercedes as “the ultimate sitting machine.” BMW’s campaign presented itself as “the ultimate driving machine, guaranteed.

The messaging struck home. I recall feeling five years older whenever I drove a Mercedes and five years younger when I took a BMW out for a ride. Was it true? That didn’t matter. What’s important is that BMW made me believe it was true.

Take the cola wars. Coca-Cola has always been the original. Pepsi did not become number two by copying the original; it found a way to differentiate by taking a strength and positioning it as a weakness. If the original appealed to older folks, then Pepsi positioned itself as the “choice of a new generation” to resonate better with a younger audience. Pepsi captured significant market share by executing this move.

Or consider what happened after WalMart established itself as the market leader by emphasizing the strength of its everyday low pricing policy. K-Mart tried the same tack and got killed (Sears finally bought the company in 2011). When Target came along, it went in the opposite direction. The company marketed itself as the sophisticated mass merchandiser, a strategy which helped turn it into one of retail’s perennial powerhouses, and a personal favorite at that.

The same logic applies to Siebel. In the early 2000s, Siebel was the elite CRM solution, billing itself as the best software for sales on the market. When came onto the scene, instead of positioning itself as an even better software solution, it judo-moved to say this: We are No Software. It then proceeded to positon Siebel’s strength of comprehensive software features and functions as unnecessary for the majority of the market. Siebel now is buried in the Oracle portfolio, and Salesforce still hasn’t relinquished its dominance in the salesforce automation space – not to Oracle or anyone else.

Communicating your dominance

There are many similar examples of marketers who figured out distinctive ways to communicate their brand messaging. And no doubt the successful companies outlined above also made sure to keep these guidelines top of mind:

  • Aim to own a single attribute. As Al Ries and Jack Trout say, marketing is a battle of perceptions, not products! The battle happens in the mind of the buyers. And we buyers remember mainly a single attribute that differentiates a brand. When we think Volvo, we think safety. When we think IBM, we think trust. When we think Apple, we think cool. When we think Nordstrom, we think service. These brands have successfully won our mind and now “own” a single attribute. Think about which single attribute differentiates you at a brand, product, and service level. And etch that into the mind. At Marketo, we strive to own the “marketing first” attribute—our whole mission is to be for marketers, by marketers.
  • Focus on attributes that matter. When you flip a strength into a weakness, pick something that people really care about. If they don’t care, it won’t work. For example, 7Up launched the clever Uncola campaign as a judo move versus the rest of the soda market highlighting that 7Up had no caffeine. “Never had it. Never will” was the proclamation. Despite this brand messaging strategy, 7Up has less than 1% market share and has has become quite irrelevant. Why? One big reason is that it picked a differentiating attribute—lack of caffeine—that the mass market didn’t care about.
  • Align product experience with the perception experience. In any perception war, products and services have to eventually live up to their advance billing. If the experience fails to match the perceived experience, you’ll eventually fall flat. Ford launched the Edsel in 1957 with a $250M investment and much fanfare. In an era where there was a limited choice of models, Ford had marketed Edsel as the irresistible car of the future where every American would get their unique choice. It certainly didn’t help that the first Edsels “were delivered with oil leaks, sticking hoods, trunks that wouldn’t open, and push buttons that … couldn’t be budged with a hammer.” The Edsel almost bankrupted the Ford Motor Company. Likewise, Microsoft’s Zune’s, launched with much fanfare in 2006 as the alternative to the iPod, but never delivered on the product experience and failed. Both of these examples—one old school, one modern—show that you can only win with both product and perception. 

Summing it all up

Brands that enter the market against category leaders can’t play the same game and expect different results. Winning the mind means flipping the script. These brands must take their competitor’s biggest strength and deposition it to win the mind of the buyer. And this way they will win the market and ultimately the game.

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