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Home | The Perceptual Competitve Framework - You CAN Get

 Sunday, November 30, 2008





One of the most competitively promising positioning concepts we have been writing (and teaching) about over the past several years is what we have termed the perceptual competitive framework.   If you have been reading our weekly Dispatches for awhile now, you know that the perceptual competitive framework is an additional dimension to the traditional competitive framework - in which a brand identifies its literal competitive set. This additional, perceptual dimension is actually a “label” or sound-byte-descriptor created by the brand team to articulate how they want the brand to be perceived by its consumers or customers. Among the many examples of perceptual competitive frameworks perhaps the one we have admired the most is that of Gatorade…who some years ago declared its intention to be perceived by its target consumers not as merely another sports drink, but as ultimate liquid athletic equipment



At first, the notion of having your beverage brand perceived as equipment instead is certainly jarring. But the more you think about it, the more clever and sensible it becomes. After all, Gatorade is a brand for athletes of all ages and performance levels; and, at least in American amateur and professional sports, it has become a sideline fixture—its unmistakable orange cooler has, literally, been sideline equipment for decades now. To the extent the brand can actually bring their ultimate liquid athletic equipment to life, then, there is a real chance for a perceived advantage versus other mere sports drinks (the ones that don’t have their coolers on the sidelines). In a world where so many products are functionally similar—performing at parity to one another—having a perceived advantage can mean a lot, whether your brand is the category leader or the one trying to upset the leader.



But we think the real beauty of having a compelling perceptual competitive framework in the brand positioning is that it becomes a kind of “North Star” to guide the brand’s future strategic initiatives. If Gatorade is really serious about being seen as athletic equipment, then they would pioneer the development of a special bottle cap for easy drinking on the go (which they did); they would sponsor Little League, High School, and University local sports programs in an effort to have Gatorade added to those teams’ lists of “required equipment” (which they have done). In many ways, an original, well-developed perceptual competitive framework becomes the “short-form” synopsis of the entire brand positioning. When everyone working on the brand understands the importance of always standing for ultimate liquid athletic equipment, then there is a high likelihood the brand will not drift from its intended, competitive positioning.



As mentioned, we have been teaching this concept for quite awhile now. And, invariably, our seminar participants become quite intrigued even excited about it—initially. But then it seems a good number of them begin to back off in their enthusiasm; they begin to think of all the reasons why they cannot possibly make it work for their brands. Some of the things we hear go like this:



“How can you really make something like this work in a low-involvement category like mine? I mean, how can you really become more than merely laundry detergent?” (But hasn’t Brand Tide become perceived as “better clothes care”?)



“I’m heavily regulated by the FDA; how can I possibly stand for something other than my class-of-drug identity?” (But hasn’t Brand Nexium come to be seen as the “indigestion reliever and healer”?)



“What if I go too far? I don’t want to my brand’s perception to become ridiculous by trying to be some kind of “life improver.” (But haven’t all the brands that do perceptual CF well limited their “boundary”—after all, Gatorade is not aiming to be perceived as a “life experience enhancer.”)



Actually, virtually all skeptical comments we hear like these are more a result of the marketer’s lack of experience is crafting a perceptual competitive framework. To try to ease some of these early misgivings, for this week’s Boats & Helicopters we propose some tips to achieve success in the perceptual competitive framework “creative process.” It will probably take some time to determine the ideal perceptual framework for your brand; but once you have one, your consumers and customers have one more good reason the choose your brand over another.





  1. Start the thinking process with a simple device: the concentric circle diagram. In the middle or first circle, place the commonly used “label” that most consumers or customers would use to identify what kind of brand yours is. For Band-Aid Brand, for example, that first circle would have something like “adhesive bandage” in it. What would be the next, close-in step to label the brand—the label for the next closest circle? Perhaps “wound protector.” And then the next might be “wound and blister protector.” Or maybe it would be “wound protector and healer.” You get the idea. Of course, to make any of these step-out moves in perception, the brand would necessarily have to innovate with products, packages, events, and so on to make them believable for the brand.
  1. Before going too far in the ideation process, make sure everyone on the team understands the benefits the brand stands for. We often say that an effective perceptual competitive framework “sets up” the benefits for the consumer/customer. If you are Olay Regenerist Brand and your framework is to be perceived as “revolutionary cell care,” then the consumer naturally expects the products will regenerate more, new, young cells for even younger-looking skin than other brands promise. Actually, the brand’s benefit language can be a good “soup-starter” for a perceptual competitive framework label.
  1. Lay out the brand’s current innovation plans: what product improvements, line extensions, packaging changes, merchandising moves does the brand intend to implement? What do the composite if these moves say about how the brand will the nbe perceived? The fact that the KY Brand has been adding massage lotions, warming liquids, and even “his and hers” pre-sex items says a great deal about how the brand’s perceptual framework has intentionally shifted from “personal lubricant” to “intimacy enhancer.”
  1. Collect a range of brand-models, brands that are obviously evolving how they wish to be perceived. With an analysis of how these brands are changing their perception, your team can find some principles to follow as well. There are so many good examples of brands that have successfully created a differentiating perceptual frame: MasterCard, McDonald’s, Jell-O, Gatorade, Band-Aid, KY, Tide, Crest.
  1. Avoid going too emotional too fast. Most of the successful perceptual frames we’re seeing are ones that build upon functional benefits more than emotional ones. It may be that a brand like Hallmark can be perceived at the “personal feelings extender,” but only because the brand has stood mainly for an emotional benefit advantage for so long. Most other brands cannot easily pull of quality-of-life kinds of frames.
  1. Aim for a perception that other brands in your class or category would have difficulty copying. Again ,with all the conscious innovation and all the official US sports sponsorships belonging only to Gatorade, it would not be very believable for Powerade to take on “ultimate liquid athletic equipment.”


Richard Czerniawski & Mike Maloney

Richard Czerniawski

430 Abbotsford Road

Kenilworth, Illinois 60043

tel 847.256.8820 fax 847.256.8847

reply to Richard: or



Mike Maloney

1506 West 13th

Austin, Texas 78703

tel 512.236.0971 fax 512.236.0972

reply to Mike: or

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