Thoughts on Marketing Strategy and Branding – MBA Learnings

Marketing strategy, to me, came down to one central insight – “Be cheap or be different.” Everything else is a losing strategy in the long run. A brand, on the other hand, is just a set of associations.

marketing strategy, brandingImage source – Example associations for McDonalds

Wal-Mart, to take an example, is built on the “be cheap” strategy. And, it is likely that you associate Wal-Mart with “cheap” as well. Apple, on the other hand, is built on the “think different” idea. And, it is likely you associate Apple with “think different” as well. This is particularly interesting where Apple is concerned because owning an Apple products don’t offer much customization. Every iPhone is exactly the same with limited ability to customize anything beyond colors. So, in some ways, it is think different, but own the same thing. :-) In Apple’s case, I would posit that the source of its differentiation has moved from just “think different” to something that points to being cool/aspirational over time. It has clearly worked well for them.

When the marketing strategy and the brand’s associations align, it is pretty magical. It means all other components of marketing – e.g. advertising – are aligned too. Since alignment is key, it points to why marketing needs to begin with the product. Shoving lots of differentiation based advertising on a bad product isn’t a route to winning in the long term. Customers find out.

The product I was thinking about as I was writing this was me/us. As CEO’s of Me, Inc., I think these lessons raise some interesting questions for you and me. In particular, there were 2 questions that crossed my mind –

1. What is our marketing strategy built off? This a bit of a long-term question – are you going to be cheap? or different? Cheap means undifferentiated on everything except price and it implies an ability to do something with a cost advantage. If differentiation is the goal, however, it likely means being differentiated on skills. There are two ways to be different on skills – either be among the world’s best in one thing or possess a very unique combination of skills. If you’re going down the “world’s best” path, it means consistent deliberate practice to be among the world’s best craftsman in your field. For everyone else, it is all about combining various complementary skills.

The most famous example of the latter is from Dilbert’s author – Scott Adams. Scott Adams, in his own words, combined an average sense of humor, average drawing skills and average corporate experience to create a killer comic targeted at a corporate audience. Some of the most valuable professions today require skills across disciplines. For example, it is certain that business leaders for the next 2 decades will need to be very proficient with data. So, data analytics and statistics are skills that will matter more as time goes by.

But, is there a perfect combination that works for your field? While I would posit that there are essential skills depending on your industry (for example, most non-founder CEO’s of leading technology companies seem to have experience running product organizations), I am almost certain there isn’t one set path. Instead, what probably matters here is to just be a learning machine and to just keep picking up skills. The dots only connect backwards.

2. What are the associations linked to our brands? Ellen Kullman, former CEO of DuPont, said that people who worked with you or know you professionally have a “book” on you. The book typically has answers to 2 questions – “does this person get stuff done?” and “does this person have the ability to inspire people to follow them?” Know what the book about you says because you can shape it over time – was her advice to us.

The third question I would add is – “what are you good at?” As a result, your professional reputation is likely built on your skills, your ability to get stuff done and your ability to lead. But, “how” we do it is something that is unique to our personalities. Ellen’s point was to be aware of what your reputation is and to think intentionally about what you’d like it to be.

A quick note on self promotion – I think of self promotion as advertising. Some brands are fantastic at it and, then, there are others who shun it completely and rely on word-of-mouth/influencers. My sense on advertising/self-promotion is that you need to pick a strategy that suits your personality. You also need to target it in the right places. Mass market brands need to spend a lot of money on advertising. Niche brands are much more targeted and, in some cases, may not need any at all.

The point-of-difference here is that advertising is not marketing. Marketing is the story around your product – the promises it makes and how it keeps those promises. And, as a result, it begins with the product.