THE COMPETITIVE FRAMEWORK—A REFRESHER (PART 1)
Something to think about:
Q: I desperately need a competitive edge, but I’m stuck
with a parity-performing product that I can’t change.
What do I do?
A: Try changing your competition!
1. Seeing the Competitive Framework as More than the Competitive Set
The answer posed to the question above may, at first glance, appear rather clever but highly impractical. For despite the desperate straits a brand faces, how can it literally change its competitive set? A detergent (like Tide or Surf) competes with other detergents and laundry cleaning aids; a prescription drug (like Lipitor or Zocor) competes with other similar drugs called statins. These fast-moving consumer goods categories and drug classes are virtually set, often even legally so. No wonder most marketers typically accept them as givens.
But upon further consideration, the marketing team behind Tide might well argue that, any more, the Tide Brand is perceived by the consumer as being much more than simply another laundry detergent. With line innovations like Tide Ultra and formulation improvements like “Wear Care,” the brand goes beyond ordinary detergent boundaries to something like “Clothes Cleaner and Preserver”—or maybe, better yet “Clothes Care.” Likewise, thanks to the Zocor’s clinically-proven mortality studies, that brand is perceived by American physicians and patients as more than a cholesterol-reducer. With substantial investments in physician sales calls and materials and in direct-to-consumer advertising, the Zocor marketing team has created a compelling impression of the brand as a “Mortality Reducer” or “Longer-Life Giver.”
Whether you agree with these interpretations or not, one thing is clear: more and more brands--with parity-performing products underneath them—are aiming to go beyond their obvious, competitive set boundaries and create the perception of being something more. And if you recall our definition of brand positioning, “the way we want consumers/customers to perceive, think, and feel about our brand versus competition,” this perception-creation with the Competitive Framework makes a lot of sense. It is no longer sufficient for marketers to merely identify their brand’s literal competitive set (that’s the easy part anyway!). No, to be more competitive nowadays the brand marketer must creatively explore and develop a perceptual framework. In fact, the brand positioning should include not one but two dimensions of Competitive Framework: the literal and the perceptual.
Of course, articulating the perceptual framework is only the first step. After that, it takes tangible initiatives—such as line extensions, product improvements, packaging architecture and design changes, product “designators,” merchandising placement, advertising, and other things to ensure the consumer or customer will readily perceive what the brand intends. In other words, getting to a competitive Competitive Framework takes an action plan.
We’ll eventually (in future Dispatches) take a look at some examples of brands with compelling, sustained Competitive Framework action plans. But before we do that, let’s return to the question and answer exchange that we started with. Is it really possible to change your competition (or at least add to your current competition)? Consider the classic example of a paper-product brand known worldwide:
First introduced in the United States in the 1920’s, this brand was initially positioned as a “disposable cold-cream remover.” In those days, women who wore make-up used cold-cream each night before going to bed to remove their make-up; naturally, they required something to wipe off and hold the “goo” being removed from their face. The brand built a nice little business within a competitive set that probably included things like cotton balls, toilet tissue, and wash cloths. But then some forward-thinking marketer on the team suggested that, without any major changes to the product (but some to the packaging architecture), the brand could be more advantageously positioned as a “disposable handkerchief.” In that way, it would be competing with more and different products like cloth handkerchiefs and napkins…and it would be increasing its use occasions substantially—throughout the day (as opposed to one use in the evening for removing cold-cream) and by both genders and all ages. So, can you name the brand? (Answer at the very end.)
2. Identifying the Literal Competitive Framework
With examples like this, hopefully you can begin to see some advantages of thinking beyond the brand’s obvious competitive set. But, of course, each brand needs to have some easily recognizable competitive set to “belong to”—if for no other reason than to ensure the intended positioning target readily remembers the brand when needs it can satisfy come up. As the authors of Winning Brands put it, every consumer or customer has a set of “mental drawers” in her or his head; these drawers open automatically when various needs arise. For example, if I awaken with a painful backache, my mental drawer labeled “back pain” opens
subconsciously and shows me the various options I have to take care of the problem: analgesics, both oral and topical, are in the drawer for sure; maybe some pain patches like Therma-Care or Tiger Balm will be there as well. There may even be some procedures to go along with these products—like taking a hot shower or calling for a massage or making an appointment with a chiropractor. The point is, if your brand is a substitute for one of these, it obviously needs to be in the drawer! We like to call these substitutable competitors the Literal Competitive Framework because they are literally the brands and services that our brand interacts with and sources volume from.
Most well-established brands communicate their Literal Competitive Framework in the most basic of ways. Fast-moving consumer goods typically have a designator on their packaging—usually right under the brand logo—that identifies the category or set. Sometimes these designators are referred to as “standard of identity” nomenclature. So, under the Tylenol logo we would see the word “Analgesic”(or maybe “Pain Reliever”); under the Tide logo we would see the words “Laundry Detergent”; and under the Gatorade logo we would see the words “Thirst Quencher.” Even pharmaceutical brands normally follow this standard of identity classification. For example, under the Zocor logo we would see the word “Simvastatin,” which clarifies precisely what type of statin Zocor is.
Another very basic way that packaged goods brands indicate their literal set is through their retail merchandising location. Remember you grandmother’s admonishment, “You will always be known by the company you keep”? Well, brands are also at least partly known by the company they keep, by their retail “neighbors.” We expect brands like Neutrogena, Nivea, and Olay to regularly be found in the Health & Beauty Aid section of the store, more specifically in the Skincare aisle. In a way, these consistent retail classifications inform and reflect our individual mental drawers.
But even with everyday helpers like standard of identity labeling and retail category sectioning, there are also times when brands choose to do more to ensure their brand’s Literal Competitive Framework is being communicated. One common approach is using advertising to make it crystal clear. What are some of those times when a brand marketer might want to go beyond packaging and in-store signals to identify very clearly for the target the literal framework? This is the question we’ll deal with in our next installment of the Competitive Framework Refresher. Stay tuned.
(The answer to the question about the 1920’s brand is Kleenex.)