Challenger brands transform existing categories or create new ones by questioning the status quo and forcing leaders to change. Positioning is arguably more important for challenger brands entering existing categories than for 'breakthrough' brands creating new ones. Breakthrough brands can get by on their value propositions and origins stories alone to build awareness and credibility, at least for a while. However, in a competitive category, they are not adequate to convert prospects who are already satisfied with their current brand(s) or solutions, and see no reason to switch. To successfully take business from established brand leaders, challenger brands need a compelling, differentiated positioning.

Quick! Name a movie that features strategic planning. Chances are you’re thinking of The Italian Job or Ocean’s Eleven. For me, the movie that comes to mind is The Princess Bride.


I’ve always had a thing for textiles. Early in my career, I worked on several global textiles industry projects. But even before that, I always collected textiles everywhere I went. I love the way the colors and textures combine, whether woven or knitted, crocheted or braided – I enjoy them all! Turns out experience management has a lot to learn from textiles.

It is fashionable today to be a market research nay-sayer. Internal marketing research departments no longer carry the clout (or budgets) they once did. Work that used to be trusted to objective experienced professionals now is assigned to internal folks familiar with Survey Monkey and social media analytics. The death of the survey is proclaimed loudly by data scientists and CXM software companies.

Today’s experience management platforms are all following the same playbook - creating an avalanche of “signals” from scooping up all of a customer’s social media, web, email, in person and call center interactions into an overwhelming data overload that they alone provide the tools to make sense of. It’s a classic selling technique that makes a number of important – and flawed - assumptions.

Personalized customer experiences are now an imperative. At minimum, customers expect personalized greetings, relevant content, and a service/sales experience based on relevant past transaction information. They expect to be delighted by an empowered sales rep who can address their issues on the spot and take proactive service to a level that used to be reserved for luxury brands. Anything less is a miss. So where do we go from here?

The customer experience gets a lot of press and management attention these days. The Wall Street Journal, Barron’s and other leading business publications are arguing right now about the relevance and value of NPS in evaluating customers’ satisfaction with their experience. (Click here to see our point of view.)

This week, the WSJ published a scathing take down of the widely used, wildly popular, Net Promoter Score or NPS. In an article titled, “The Dubious Management Fad Sweeping Corporate America”, the authors suggest “willingness to recommend” has been sold to corporate America as the one customer satisfaction metric to rule them all. The article ignited a furious debate between NPS Advocates and Detractors (sorry, I couldn’t resist), with even NPS creator, Fred Reichfeld of Bain, weighing in. He says he never intended it to be used this way.

“Brand Architecture” refers to how an organization names and organizes its offerings. The goal is to cover as much of the market as possible with the least number of brands. Organizations with more than one brand (which is most organizations), also need to decide where in the brand portfolio to build equity. For most organizations, decisions about brand architecture and where to focus their resources are the most important brand decisions they will make.

Getting the Brand Architecture right eases decisions about where to invest for long-term growth. It aligns marketing decisions with business objectives and ensures efficient use of marketing resources. Conversely, failure to optimize the portfolio through smart brand architecture is at the root of many brand strategy problems.

Subbranding an ITIn B2B branding, tech and IT services firms have mostly embraced the masterbrand approach to architecture and portfolio strategy. Accenture, Deloitte, IBM, Oracle, and HP Enterprise rely heavily on their big brand clout, based on their belief that B2B clients value the efficiency and peace of mind of a one-stop-shop above all else.

The poster child for a single, B2B masterbrand strategy in tech is Cisco. The company created an M&A machine to maximize efficiency in stripping out virtually all of the B2B brand names it acquired and integrating the assets into the Cisco brand (except Linksys, which focused on B2C).

"What do I know about branding, maybe nothing (but I did become President!), but if I were Boeing, I would FIX the Boeing 737 MAX, add some additional great features, & REBRAND the plane with a new name," – Donald Trump

However disingenuous Trump’s unsolicited advice to Boeing, there is in fact a time and place for rebranding. Boeing may in fact be well-served by starting fresh with a new name. On the other hand, Firestone and VW each stayed the course, saving the pain of rebranding, while investing heavily in salvaging their reputations. Which suggests there are no right answers here.

The gap between brand strategy and customer experience design can be daunting. Marketers connect their brands with customers through compelling positionings based on enduring benefits. They carefully define the perceptions they intend to create or reinforce through these positionings, ideally in emotional or expressive terms.

Yet, there are few road maps for translating those desired perceptions into tangible experiences. How do we move from voicing the strategy to creating the experience that will move the brand forward?

Digital technology is reshaping every aspect of business: product development, go-to-market strategy, customer service, and more. Companies are spending bigly to make the shift to digital in their processes, competencies and business models to achieve a more competitive and sustainable growth trajectory.

Advice on how to ensure a successful digital transformation abounds. For example, BCG suggests many essentials for the digital journey: establish a vision, redefine the customer journey, transform governance, explore collaborative ways of working, and more. Missing from their advice and that of most others is recognition of the inherent need for a parallel and simultaneous brand realignment effort. At best, this oversight is a missed opportunity. At worst, it is a mistake.

Strong brands don’t happen by accident, they require careful planning, nurturing and investment. A complete brand platform has three elements

  • Value Proposition describes the brand’s core reason for being.
  • Brand Vision provides a multi-dimensional description of what the brand aspires to be.
  • Brand Positioning explains how the brand plans to communicate to its target audiences about why they should choose it over other alternatives.

Together, these elements provide a solid foundation for planning brand investments and a roadmap for brand development over time.

Personality Sets a Brand Apart

With increased globalization and diminishing opportunities for tangible differentiation, personality is getting more attention, and for good reason. Personality can be the most distinguishing feature of a brand. When expressed consistently, it is remarkably enduring and hard to copy.

Strong brands have many human qualities. They have relationships with customers and other brands – some even have parents! They care about their appearance and worry about making a good first impression. They take stands on issues and contribute to causes.  They show up at events, and have Facebook pages, Twitter feeds and Instagram accounts.  How they accomplish these activities creates an impression of a personality. 

Stand Out or Stand Apart?

Ideally, a brand should do both. True differentiation allows a brand to stand out for being different. Owning a unique and relevant place in the hearts and minds of customers is the heart of traditional positioning and has been the goal of branding for decades.

Yet, true differentiation is difficult to achieve. In the arms race for advantage, many so-called “differentiators” are irrelevant to customers. Very few companies have been able to break through to create meaningful separation in their categories and genuine emotional resonance. Differentiation can be even harder to sustain. Most innovations can be copied or undermined by a lower priced offer.

Healthy Brands Mean Healthy Businesses

Deep insight into customers and prospects is key to understanding a brand’s current position and identifying ways to enhance it. Brand Trackers and Attitude and Usage (A&U) studies should be more than perfunctory exercises. They offer opportunities to dig deeper into insights about customers and prospects, evaluate a brand’s current position, spot trends, and identify opportunities to enhance it.

A&U studies are a point in time assessment of brand equity. When done right, they provide actionable recommendations for improving brand health in the areas of targeting, messaging and innovation. A&U studies can also be the baseline for future waves of Brand Tracking. 

Brand Tracking studies reveal changes in brand health Key Performance Indicators (KPI’s) over time. KPI’s typically follow the marketing funnel and include: unaided and aided brand awareness, brand understanding, consideration or trial, brand usage, and brand preference. KPI’s may also include customer perceptions, decision drivers and brand advocacy metrics such as Net Promoter scores. They typically do not include customer satisfaction.