Profile: Jeremy Gilley

The man marketing world peace

Best brands are disruptively consistent

I’ll never write a book on branding. I don’t have the time to sit down and commit the months, probably years, it would take to create something of value on the topic of brand management. And the people I have spoken to who have committed that kind of time to writing a management book invariably regret it down the track.

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But if I did write a book on branding I would call it Disruptively Consistent. And if it sold well I would bring out a sequel called Consistently Disruptive. The concept is the same whichever way you write it and I fundamentally believe that this paradoxical concept is at the very centre of all great brand strategy.

Let me explain with one of my favourite case studies. Ten years ago, office retailer Staples had a problem. Its original positioning of offering the widest ranges at the lowest prices had worked so well against small, independent competitors that it had almost wiped them out. The problem for Staples was that this same positioning was now failing to differentiate it against its two remaining large national rivals - Office World and Office Depot. Worse still, the pricing part of that promise was now leading to some less than attractive margins as it went head to head with these two big competitors.

When Shira Goodman took over as Staples CMO, she quickly realised she had to come up with a new position for the brand given the current approach was no longer working. After months of research, the decision was made to focus away from price and range, given that they had become points of parity, and focus instead on an association that none of the big three players currently owned - easy. Staples would make buying office products easy.

Staples set about this new positioning challenge with vigour. It created a new logo with “that was easy” under the logo. It created the now famous Easy Button as a symbol. It launched a series of ads in which customers were shown being rescued from the complicated hell of office products by Staples and its Easy Button. It even launched an Invention Quest competition in which a prize was awarded each year for an entrepreneur who invented an office product that would make life easier for consumers. All bang on the brand.

But it was the smallest and most subtle change that made the most impact. When Goodman reviewed the existing design of the Staples stores, she noticed that all the most popular products were right at the back of the store. When she inquired further she was told that this was standard retail practice. In a supermarket, for example, milk is always at the back of the store because that ensures that consumers have to walk past aisles of crap they do not need, some of which they hopefully pop into their trolley. And it was the same with office retail. It was just the way that retailing was done.

Brands win when they disrupt the category… A stong brand breaks some of the central rules of the industry

But Goodman realised this was not easy. It was the exact opposite of that. And she began to move all the best-selling products to the front of the store to make the Staples experience easier. Staples would lose a little in ancillary sales, but it would win the bigger and more important battle of brand differentiation.

And it worked. Ten years on, Staples stands as the undisputed market leader in office products. Staples’ regular brand tracking now reveals the brand owns the association of ‘easy’ and that has driven enormous market share gains.

And if you review why Staples has been so successful in differentiating itself, it all comes back to little decisions like redesigning its stores so that the best-selling products are the easiest to reach. And we return to the title of the book that I will never write - Disruptively Consistent.

Brands win when they disrupt the category they operate in. One of the sure signs that a brand is truly strong is when it defies the traditional logic of its competitors and breaks some of the central rules of the industry it is in.

But this rule breaking is not arbitrary. Not chaotic. The only reason a strong brand breaks the rules of the industry is to deliver their brand positioning to their target consumers. At the heart of any strong brand, there are two motions taking place simultaneously. On the one hand, the brand is disrupting its category. On the other, it is ruthlessly executing its brand positioning. And the place where these two motions meet is where great brands exist.

I could give you many more examples. The champagne brand that reversed the sequence of its vintages, in direct contradiction of the rules of its category. Or the airline that replaced its boring arrival announcements with a more cheerful, entertaining message because “fun” was one of its five core values. All these, and more, are in the book that I will never write.

The central message of branding remains the challenge of doing two things well. First, ensuring that the positioning is applied steadfastly and without exception. Second, breaking as many rules as possible within the business to achieve that end. Or disruptively consistent as my never-to-be written book would put it.

Readers' comments (9)

  • We pitched a disruptive concept to Stena a few years baBWA and their disruption process - making sea travel the start of an adventure - "Adventures Begin By Sea By Stena". DIdn't win, but it was based on good thinking, strategically based and it would have differentiated - but thats the way them eggs fall...

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  • Staples differentiation strategy and the wisdom to make positioning more than just marketingspeak, but the truth, was undoubtedly successful and smart. However, it had nothing to do with market disruption or disruptive innovation. They simply caught slow thinking competitors with conventional mindsets flat-footed.

    In an industry where competitors are more responsive to their environments and what consumers actually want (rather than what the retailer wishes to sell), this doesn't happen. Therefore, what you have is a lesson in positioning and how to defeat a competitor who isn't paying attention, not a case study in disruption.

    Disruptive innovation follows quite a different path, and exhibits entirely different attributes. Simply using the term "disruptive" without illuminating why just adds to the hype, and doesn't help anyone to understand why it's a business strategy that always works if properly executed.

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  • Another good article. Thanks Mark and even better for the fact that it didnt include any swear words. Heard you at Marketing week on Thursday and the swearing really isn't necessary. Your command of the English language is good enough for your points to make an impact without it.

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  • As long as you mean disruptive in terms of the principle of doing something brave and not being tied down by the status quo, rather than using a fixed model on all work regardless of it is suitable... then I agree.

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  • Thanks Jeff

    I do welcome your comments but I cannot guarantee that future columns will not contain the occasional "fuck" "Bollocks" and even a super-occasional "mother fucker".

    I refer you to the great and all powerful Frank Zappa on the topic in what is, clearly, the greatest piece of modern philosophy ever recorded on film:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8ISil7IHzxc

    "Why are people afraid of words?"

    Ahem Frank.

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  • "And it worked. Ten years on, Staples stands as the undisputed market leader in office products"

    And buying out Office World in 2004 had nothing to do with this?!?

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  • "And it worked. Ten years on, Staples stands as the undisputed market leader in office products"

    And buying out Office World in 2004 had nothing to do with this?!?

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  • Good point James but I stick to my reticence to reposition brands. I think 99% of the time its arrogant or naive (or both) brand managers who dont' understand what they are doing.

    There are a tiny few cases - Staples is one of them - where the brands original positioning has become generic and a point of parity in the market. In these special cases it might be possible to come up with a new attribute given the existing ones have become generic. But this is a special case and very different from the morons who try and make a French brand British or a traditional brand cool.

    Disruption is completely separate from all this. Its just coincidence that in the Staples case you have both disruption and repositioning going on at the same time. Most of the brands that I have been lucky enough to work with who are consistently disruptive do so from an existing, long held positioning.

    so disruption is essential

    repositioning not advised

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  • Good point James but I stick to my reticence to reposition brands. I think 99% of the time its arrogant or naive (or both) brand managers who dont' understand what they are doing.

    There are a tiny few cases - Staples is one of them - where the brands original positioning has become generic and a point of parity in the market. In these special cases it might be possible to come up with a new attribute given the existing ones have become generic. But this is a special case and very different from the morons who try and make a French brand British or a traditional brand cool.

    Disruption is completely separate from all this. Its just coincidence that in the Staples case you have both disruption and repositioning going on at the same time. Most of the brands that I have been lucky enough to work with who are consistently disruptive do so from an existing, long held positioning.

    so disruption is essential

    repositioning not advised

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