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Sunday, August 29, 2010

Hostile Brands

From day one in courses in Marketing, Branding, New Product Development, Advertising, or Consumer Behavior students are always taught that a marketer must separate their product from the competition. Before launching a brand at a company, the old pros instruct the rookies that above all you must be able to differentiate yourself from other entries in your category. A new book, “Different”, subtitled “Escaping the Competitive Herd” (Crown Business, 2010) puts a whole new and important spin on that old marketing saw. The author, Professor Youngme Moon, teaches at the Harvard Business School.

Professor Moon’s thesis is that if you only make direct comparisons on features you may have the “perverse effect of making you just like everyone else”. It reminded me of John Hartford’s lyric from the late ‘60’s—“What’s the difference being different when it’s different now that looks alike”. Professor Moon suggests that we hop off the competitive treadmill and do something that is MEANINGFULLY different. Lots of people promise that with every campaign but the author gives a good roadmap for doing it.

The book cruises along pleasantly with simple logic and some nice examples. Then the reader encounters a chapter simply entitled “Hostility” which hit me like a freight train. Her argument is that some brands differentiate themselves meaningfully by admitting that they are not for everyone but rather for a small minority. Their advertising deliberately tries to polarize people as do their products. Some people love them but an equal or larger group hates them. She states that they do not lay out the welcome mat. “Hostile brands don’t market in the classic sense of the term; they anti-market.” She gives several great examples with my favorites being Marmite, Red Bull, and Mini Cooper.

Marmite is a sticky brown food paste that has been around the United Kingdom for a while. You either hate it or are a true aficionado. I vividly remember staying at a British B&B some years back and watched people in the dining room slathering it on their “bits of toast.” I had to try it although it reminded of me of oil that had been sitting in the crankcase way too long. The stuff was dreadful or as the Brits would say “bloody awful.” But others in the breakfast nook scarfed it up with abandon. Their theme line is “Love it or hate it” and a TV spot of recent vintage has a blob of Marmite terrorizing a British town. As a boy in New England, there was a soft drink called Moxie which triggered similar polarized reactions. The great Ted Williams endorsed it so whenever we went to Fenway Park to see the Red Sox, I always ordered one and could never finish it as it struck me as having an awful medicinal taste. Finally, at the ripe age of ten, my father stepped in and stopped me from getting one saying “how about coffee milk (a great Southern New England tradition) or a Pepsi, Don? You know you won’t finish the Moxie.” Later that day, Ted Williams hit one of his last home runs which was thrilling and, to my father’s joy, he did not have to finish my Moxie for me. Moxie would have been a perfect candidate for a hostile brand. Instead, they took the high road and used New England’s greatest hero as spokesman.

Red Bull is well known to all of us. But the story behind the story may not be. Austrian entrepreneur Dietrich Mateschitz did his due diligence prior to launch and tested Red Bull extensively. Research results stated that the products coloring, sticky mouth feel, and taste were “disgusting.” One researcher wrote that “no other product has failed this convincingly.” Mateschitz’s response was a simple “great.”

He was not one to pander and as Dr. Moon put it refused to “even consider the possibility of modifying the product to sand away the rough edges.” Somehow the product caught on in clubs and select bars and was nicknamed “liquid cocaine”, “speed in a can” and “liquid viagra.” This spawned a consumer boycott by some worried about its health effects. Red Bull did no counter advertising. Their tone was “if Red Bull makes you nervous, don’t drink it”. The product has succeeded and has a hard core of devotees. To date, they have never flinched.

The final example is kind of a soft ball relative to the previous two UNLESS you saw their initial advertising. The Mini Cooper is a cult favorite which appeal to a certain class of driver. Early on they were strident. Initial ads were “The SUV backlash starts here”. To people who were worried about the small dimensions of the car, they simply stressed it especially on billboards. They were blunt and brazen with a very direct message.

What excites me about this discussion of hostile brands is that there is a world of media options available these days to allow a hostile brand to obtain awareness even if your budget is modest by traditional launch standards. Imagine a rollout into a few test markets. You could put together a package of cable channels with your local interconnect that would be a nice fit to the in your face or irreverent message that you were using. On line, the possibilities are endless. There are thousands of sites with an audience who might be turned on to your product and would not be offended by a “take it or leave it” positioning. New video options abound and would be inexpensive but nicely targeted. It almost makes me want to be a 28 year old media planner again.

Some brands are obviously too vanilla to be hostile brands. But, there are many like the Moxie of my youth that would be excellent candidates. Dr. Moon has done us all a great favor. Going forward her message of meaningful differentiation is sound but her defining the hostile brand and its applications is inspired.

If you would like to contact Don Cole directly, you may reach him at doncolemedia@gmail.com

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