Some thoughts on marketing strategy and branding

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Second-year student Rohan Rajiv is blogging once a week about important lessons he is learning at Kellogg. Read more of his posts here.

Marketing strategy, to me, comes down to one central insight: “Be cheap or be different.” Everything else is a losing strategy in the long run. A brand, on the other hand, is just a set of associations.

Wal-Mart, to take an example, is built on the “be cheap” strategy. And it is likely that you associate Wal-Mart with “cheap” as well. Apple, on the other hand, is built on the “think different” idea. And it is likely you associate Apple with “think different” as well.

This is particularly interesting where Apple is concerned because Apple products don’t offer much customization. Every iPhone is exactly the same, with limited ability to customize anything beyond colors. So in some ways, it is think different but own the same thing. In Apple’s case, I would posit that the source of its differentiation has moved from just “think different” to something that points to being cool/aspirational over time. It has clearly worked well for them.

When the marketing strategy and the brand’s associations align, it is pretty magical. It means all other components of marketing – e.g. advertising – are aligned, too. Since alignment is key, it points to why marketing needs to begin with the product. Shoving lots of differentiation-based advertising on a bad product isn’t a route to winning in the long term. Customers find out.

The product I was thinking about as I was writing this was me/us. As CEO’s of Me, Inc., I think these lessons raise some interesting questions for you and me. In particular, there were two questions that crossed my mind.

1. What is our marketing strategy built off of? 

This a bit of a long-term question: Are you going to be cheap, or different? Cheap means undifferentiated on everything except price, and it implies an ability to do something with a cost advantage. If differentiation is the goal, however, it likely means being differentiated on skills. There are two ways to be different on skills – either be among the world’s best in one thing or possess a very unique combination of skills. If you’re going down the “world’s best” path, it means consistent, deliberate practice to be among the world’s best craftsman in your field. For everyone else, it is all about combining various complementary skills.

A famous example of the latter is from Scott Adams, author of the Dilbert comic. Scott Adams, in his own words, combined an average sense of humor, average drawing skills and average corporate experience to create a killer comic targeted at a corporate audience.

Some of the most valuable professions today require skills across disciplines. For example, it is certain that business leaders for the next two decades will need to be proficient with data. So data analytics and statistics are skills that will matter more as time goes by.

But is there a perfect combination that works for your field? While I would posit that there are essential skills depending on your industry (for example, most non-founder CEO’s of leading technology companies seem to have experience running product organizations), I am almost certain there isn’t one set path. Instead, what probably matters here is to just be a learning machine and keep picking up skills. The dots only connect backward.

2. What are the associations linked to our brands? 

Ellen Kullman ’83, former CEO of DuPont, recently spoke at Kellogg. She said that people who work with you or know you professionally have a “book” on you. The book typically has answers to two questions: “Does this person get stuff done?” And “does this person have the ability to inspire people to follow them?” Her advice to us was to know what the book about you says, because you can shape it over time.

The third question I would add is “what are you good at?” Your professional reputation is likely built on your skills, your ability to get stuff done and your ability to lead. But “how” we do it is something that is unique to our personalities. Ellen’s point was to be aware of what your reputation is and to think intentionally about what you’d like it to be.

A quick note on self promotion – I think of self promotion as advertising. Some brands are fantastic at it, and then there are others who shun it completely and rely on word-of-mouth/influencers. My sense on advertising/self-promotion is that you need to pick a strategy that suits your personality. You also need to target it in the right places. Mass market brands need to spend a lot of money on advertising. Niche brands are much more targeted and, in some cases, may not need any at all.

The point-of-difference here is that advertising is not marketing. Marketing is the story around your product – the promises it makes and how it keeps those promises. And as a result, it begins with the product.

Rohan Rajiv is a second-year student in Kellogg’s Full-Time Two-Year Program. Prior to Kellogg he worked as a consultant serving clients across 14 countries in Europe, Asia, Australia and South America. He interned at LinkedIn in Business Operations and will be heading back to LinkedIn full-time after he graduates in June 2016. He blogs a learning every day, including his MBA Learnings series, on www.ALearningaDay.com.

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