It takes a lot more than a good product to ensure customer loyalty—and even more to maintain a competitive edge in the marketplace. Consumers today associate with a product or service through their connection with a company's brand. That's why it's more important, as a business owner, to make sure your company's brand is unique, innovative, and rock-solid enough to not only capture and hold customer loyalty, but also to dominant in the market by knocking out the competition.
David A. Aaker, vice-chairman of Prophet Brand Strategy, and professor emeritus of marketing strategy at the University of California-Berkeley's Hass School of Business, has spent more than a decade on writing books and articles about brand strategy. In his new book, Brand Relevance Making Competition Irrelevant, Aaker explains why the time spent on accurately developing your brand identity is crucial to the overall success of your company in the market.
"It's important because brand preference competition is so expensive, so wasteful and so futile," Aaker says. "You can almost never change the competitive landscape by engaging in, 'My brand is better than your brand.' The only way you get to really change things, to get sales growth and profitability is to create a subcategory or category."
In other words, instead of being focused on being the superior brand in an established category, such as computers or snacks, create something so innovative that it surpasses your competitors, thus creating your own category or subcategory.
Aaker's book describes the four key steps to doing just that and becoming the dominating player in your market. Inc.com's Gabrielle Blue spoke with Aaker to get his tips on handily beating out your brand rivals.
Blocking Brand Competition: Concept Generation
"You need to observe customers like the Marriott Hotel, be a customer like Zappos did, [and] partner with customers like P&G and Walmart did," Aaker says. "There is no one route...different routes will work in different contexts."
Companies that are leaders in your market have great ideas, ideas that took time, commitment, research, creativity, and funding to fully develop. Aaker's book notes that the idea-generation process consists of two aspects that help produce promising results for your company's brand: identifying an unmet need and promoting organizational creativity.
The best ideas will address and provide for any unmet needs in the marketplace. Aaker suggests making a list of five-to-10 unmet needs, and then categorizing them by type: unmet needs that are clear but hard to execute and unmet needs that are known but for which it's incorrectly assumed to have a small demand or a lofty investment.
"Some companies are so focused on their existing business [while] other companies are blessed, or cursed, with a whole host of ideas," he says. "The problem there is the second step: evaluation, to identify the ones that are going to win and to discard the ones that are not."
Dig Deeper: How to Conduct Competitive Research
Blocking Brand Competition: Concept Evaluation
Having a handful of solid ideas is a great start to clearly identifying what opportunities your brand can pursue to make it stand out in the marketplace. But now it's time to hone in on ones that show the most promise.
"Evaluation is complicated, because there's a lot of dimensions, and every concept is different and every organizational context is different," Aaker says. To make this process easier, Aaker suggests going through both a screening and final-choice steps. The screening step will help you better determine which ideas actually have legs, and requires you to answer three questions:
1. Is there a market for the concept?
You have to be able to forecast the changes in the market as precisely as possible and determine whether your idea is strong enough to influence and shift customers buying habits.
2. Can we compete and win?
If the idea has the support of top management, fits perfectly with your company's overall strategy and can create synergy within your organization, then perhaps it warrants some serious attention.
3. Will a market leadership position win?
An overcrowded market is ripe for fierce competition. Analyzing your competitor's strategies is the best way to ensure your company's lead in the market. Timing is everything, Aaker says.
After completing the screening process, it's time to pick your pony.
"In the final analysis, you still need these three criteria but a decision usually has to be made at the very top of the organization so resources and commitment can be directed," he says.
Dig Deeper: How to Bring Your Invention to Market
Blocking Brand Competition: Creating Barriers to the Competition
Answering "yes" to the three evaluation questions can put your company in a position to begin creating the barriers necessary to becoming an industry leader.
In his book, Aaker explains that while it's possible for competitors to copy whatever new, unique, product or service your company develops, your brand can never be duplicated.
A solid concept will create a new category or subcategory, and may ultimately go through two phases in the competitive market. The first, which Aaker notes doesn't have an expiration date, gives your business time to dominant in the market with little to no competition. The second phase starts when competition is introduced but it's trailing so far behind you that your company has the opportunity to widen the gap by creating additional subcategories.
To keep your competitors at bay, Aaker notes in his book to create four different types of barriers:
1. Investment: making it financially and economically impossible for other to compete, such as P&G's Pringles
2. Owning benefits: developing persuasive benefits will attract customers to your product, such as Apple's iPod nano.
3. Customer relationship: building customer relationships based on personality, common interests and passion, such as Avon's Breast Cancer Crusade.
4. Linking your brand: establishing a clear link between your brand and the category/subcategory will allow you to become the exemplar, such as Weight Watcher's and weight-control programs.
Dig Deeper: How to Manage Your Company's Brand
Blocking Brand Competition: Define and Manage Your New Category or Subcategory
If you've successfully followed the first three steps, you're well on your way to becoming the exemplar in your market; now it's about following-through and maintaining your relevance.
"The key to that is being the early market-leader, you don't have to be the first in the market: Prius wasn't the first, iPod wasn't the first," Aaker notes. "You have to be the authentic brand, the thought leader and the one that's given credit for first defining the subcategory."
Keep an eye on swift changes in your market to make sure customers aren't loosing interest in your brand. Aaker notes that the most successful companies are always prepared to reposition its brand to maintain relevance.
"The most successful subcategories are dynamic and the brands that are driving them are dynamic," he says.