Categories, Ladders, and Leaders

Not long ago I read with great interest an article by David Aaker in which Mr. Aaker discussed the strategic differences between preference-based marketing and relevance-based marketing.  The idea behind these two strategic directions and their potential impact on brand success is anything but trivial. 

On the one hand, preference-based marketing is an approach that encourages customers to compare your product to your competitors and determine which product “wins” their purchase. For example, a consumer shopping for laundry detergent may compare several brands that can be used on colored clothes.  Their ultimate selection depends upon being superior in at least one of the dimensions that define the category (ie; getting colors brighter) and at least as good as the competition in the other dimensions (ie; scent, color, packaging, etc).  In this strategic environment incremental innovation is required to gain an advantage over competitors and attract new customers.  This is an extremely difficult environment to live within as the innovation becomes less meaningful and customers are less and less willing to change their behavior.

On the other hand, relevance-based marketing is an alternative strategic direction seeking to change what customers purchase by creating new categories or subcategories that alter the way they look at the market.  In this strategic approach, we are changing the customers’ starting point by defining the category of product they are looking for.  By defining the target category in which the customer is searching, our product wins by making the competition irrelevant instead of just less preferred.  Consider that products, which had not previously been preferred, may become preferred through incremental innovation, whereas a product that is irrelevant is unlikely to be reconsidered.

This idea of preference vs. relevance presented by Mr. Aaker has a considerable history in brand positioning.  Looking back to the groundbreaking book “Positioning: A Battle For Your Mind” by Reis and Trout, a similar idea is presented.  Reis and Trout presented the concept as competitive ladders, recognizing that consumers can only truly remember three products in a category and that if your brand can not be on the first or second rungs of the ladder, you should build another ladder.  Recognizing that the challenges a brand faces in a highly competitive market where you are not the market leader can make significant market share gains elusive through traditional innovation and marketing paradigms.  Redefining the category in which your brand competes offers significant strategic and tactical advantages.

Again this concept appears when you consider brand positioning platforms.  While traditional preference-based strategies suggest the use of “Attribute” or “Benefit” positioning platforms, the relevance-based model is more likely to be driven by “Category” positioning; a strategic direction in which your brand is positioned in a unique category (ie; 7-up: The Uncola) separate from your competition.  Like the preference vs. relevance model described by Mr. Aaker, “Category” based positioning reframes the discussion.

Clearly this approach is not easy, trying to define the reasons for your customers to believe your product should be considered in a class of its own takes some significant strategic brain power and creative thinking.  The rewards of that time and effort, however, can be enormous as you literally define your competition out of your category.  True breakthrough positioning rarely comes easily and always requires having the vision to see what the brand can be.  The next time you begin the strategic review of your brand, challenge yourself to move beyond the fight over preference and see if you can truly make your brand relevant.

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