I tend to read a lot of business and marketing books (stop laughing at me) and over the past few years, I’ve noticed one important group that I don’t think is being served well by the existing books out there: small business owners.
Some branding books are too theoretical or philosophical, with little in the way of practical tips or tangible projects. You end up nodding your head a lot, but have no idea what you should actually do when you are finished. Other brand books are too technical or jargon-y and require you to already have an MBA and twenty years of marketing experience to understand them.
Yet branding and positioning are critical tools for anyone with a small business to master. If there are 10 other dry cleaning chains in your town, how do you ensure yours stands out? If you are about to open the fifth Mexican restaurant on the street, what makes you different or better than your competitors?
I believe that the rise of Groupon and other deep-discount social coupon services are a direct result of small businesses grasping at straws because they are struggling in tough times, looking for answers, and don’t understand the basics of branding and positioning that could really help them stand out without destroying their margins.
The Ad-Free Brand was a direct response to this dearth of branding books that spoke to small business owners. My goal was to write a book that provided a clear, simple process that anyone could follow, filled with plenty of tips and the absolute bare minimum of marketing jargon. My hope was that it would be just as understandable and useful to someone with no marketing experience as it is to a brand professional (if you’ve read it, let me know how you thought I did).
Out of all of the branding books out there, I have seven that I recommend regularly to small business owners who are interested in going a little deeper into branding issues. I thought I’d share the list with you here.
1. The Brand Gap by Marty Neumeier: This is probably my favorite simple branding book of all time. It is very visual, can be read in an hour, and is great for sharing and discussing with colleagues.
2. Zag by Marty Neumeier: Another great book by Marty Neumeier, Zag is also a quick read with plenty of ideas that will help you think about how to differentiate your business from your competitors.
3. Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind by Jack Trout and Al Ries: This is the book that defined the art of brand positioning, still just as relevant as it was when first published 30 years ago. In fact, in The Ad-Free Brand, I drew inspiration from the thinking of Trout and Ries, just updating the way positioning is implemented for a post-advertising era.
4. Differentiate or Die by Jack Trout: Another classic, in my view the best of several other positioning-related books published by Jack Trout over the years. An easy read.
5. Designing Brand Identity by Alina Wheeler: This is the guide to building out the brand identity for your business. It is an elegant and beautiful book, filled with useful case studies—you may be able to find an example in here that you’d like to emulate for your business.
6. Brand Atlas by Alina Wheeler and Joel Katz: Alina Wheeler’s newest book is an overview of many of the most important issues in branding today. Simple descriptions of the key concepts, featuring quotes and insights from leading practitioners, are paired with simple, beautiful diagrams and illustrations by Joel Katz.
7. Strategic Brand Management by Kevin Keller: When you are ready to move beyond the basics and want to attempt a graduate-level curriculum in branding, head directly for this book. It is the textbook used on college campuses around the world for brand management courses, and it is about as comprehensive a guide to brand management as I have ever encountered.
I’ve also compiled these books into a guide on Amazon here in case you want to buy the whole library (just for convenience, I don’t get any commission since Amazon doesn’t like North Carolina, my home state).
I believe almost all great brands are built on a foundation of great positioning.
I feel so strongly about positioning that one of the core elements of this blog is a series of brand positioning tips I learned over the years as an eager student of classic brand positioning.
Sometimes great positioning is led by a branding genius such as Scott Bedbury (who helped grow the Nike and Starbucks brands); sometimes a great leader and communicator with a very clear vision (like Steve Jobs at Apple) drives it into the organization; sometimes people stumble on great positioning by pure luck; and more and more often, organizations are developing positioning by collaborating with the communities of people in and around the organization who care most passionately about the brand.
This last way is the ad-free brand way of developing brand positioning.
1. Great positioning helps people understand the brand
The best brand positioning is always simple and clear. The greatest product or organization in the world won’t be successful if people can’t or don’t bother to comprehend why they should care about it. Your story must be able to break through the clutter.
2. Great positioning helps people value the brand
Getting people to understand the brand is the first step, but no less important is ensuring they value the brand. The best brands stand for things people care about or desire.
3. Great positioning helps people identify with the brand
Once people understand and value the brand, they must also understand how they fit in and how they can engage with the brand. They need to see some of themselves in it.
4. Great brand positioning helps people take ownership over the brand
It may sound like a brand’s worst nightmare to lose control and have the brand community take over. But the most self-actualized brands of the twenty-first century allow the communities of people surrounding them to take some ownership of and responsibility for the brand. Essentially, the brand owners become in command and out of control of the brand.
In 1981, when Jack Trout and Al Ries wrote Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind (the book that really defined the discipline of brand positioning) traditional advertising was still a dominant force. In fact, as you glance through their book, you’ll notice that most of the examples they use to illustrate positioning concepts are classic advertisements or advertising campaigns like the Avis “We’re #2, so we try harder” or the 7-Up “Uncola” campaign.
In the book, Trout and Ries define positioning as follows:
“…positioning is not what you do to a product. Positioning is what you do to the mind of the prospect. That is, you position the product in the mind of the prospect.”
The Trout and Ries definition is a perfect way to achieve the first three of the four benefits above; it helps people understand, value, and identify with the brand.
Where the Trout and Ries model of positioning is all about what you do to the mind of the prospect, ad-free brands are less interested in creating meaning for a brand in people’s minds and more interested in creating meaning for a brand with the help of people’s minds.
By giving the communities of people who care about a brand some ownership over its future direction, we begin to build relationships based on trust, respect, and a mutual exchange of value.
Where 21st century brands will really shine is by mimicking the open, collaborative, meritocratic model of the open source software movement (and the Internet itself) in their positioning work. In my view, without beginning to engage the communities of people who care about a brand as co-owners, classic brand positioning by itself will continue to be less and less effective as traditional advertising and PR continue to be less and less effective.
The secret? Marrying those classic brand positioning principles to a 21st century way of collaborating with the communities of people who care about a brand. By doing both together, we’ll be able to build stronger, more resilient brands than ever before.
Over the last few months, the battle to define the meaning of the word “open” has intensified into one of the more interesting brand positioning exercises I’ve seen in the technology industry (if you aren’t familiar with brand positioning and would like to learn more, consider starting here).
Google Goes on Offense
Think back to 2009 and the state of the smartphone industry. The iPhone had completely redefined the entire market, while Google was just beginning to see traction with Android and looking at a long struggle to catch up with Apple.
While most other smartphone makers were attempting to catch up playing by Apple’s rules in the market Apple defined (usually a losing strategy in the long term when the leader has a solid head start), Google took a different approach—they tried what now looks to me looks like a classic repositioning strategy.
[Read the rest of this post on opensource.com]
In the classic book Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind, by Jack Trout and Al Ries, there is an ongoing thematic—the overwhelming value of being #1 in a market. The reasoning? It is extremely hard to dislodge the company that captures a position in the minds of target customers first.
Think about how long Coca-Cola has been the #1 cola (since the 19th century) or Hertz has been the #1 car rental company (since 1918) and you’ll get a sense for how difficult it is to displace the top brand in a market.
As we’ve learned in previous brand positioning tips, a key part of the brand positioning process involves deciding on the competitive frame of reference or references in which you’d like to position your company or brand. I emphasize references because one thing to consider is whether, in addition to positioning your brand in an existing market (where you may not be #1), you should be creating a new market in which you can be #1, because there is no one else in it yet.
Some leading business strategy thinkers refer to this as a “blue ocean strategy” where you choose to create or grow a new market rather than fighting in a competitive one that already exists (a “red ocean”).
From a brand positioning perspective, I often return to a similar principle I call the 1-2 punch.
The 1-2 punch is simple:
Punch 1: Grow the market
Punch 2: Lead the market you grow
Punch 1: You may compete in a frame of reference where you are not #1, but throwing punch 1 means putting your energy into creating or growing a different competitive frame of reference that didn’t exist in the minds of your audience before.
Punch 2: This is where you must really capitalize on the benefits of being an early mover in a market. If you throw punch one (grow the market), but do not effectively land punch 2 (lead the market you grow), you may find yourself in a world of hurt. Let’s look at a few examples:
For today’s tip, I thought I’d compile a list of my five favorite brand positioning books in one place. I’ve tried to put them in some semblance of an order, with the must-reads at the top.
1. Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind by Jack Trout and Al Ries: The original book about positioning from the folks who coined the term. I’ve linked here to the 20th anniversary edition, which has some more modern examples than the original. Jack Trout and Al Ries have gone on to milk the positioning meme with about a zillion other books. I’ll link to some more of the best of these below.
2. Strategic Brand Management by Kevin Keller: Not only a great book on positioning, but on every other aspect of brand management as well. I use Kevin Keller’s model every time I run a positioning exercise. If you have already mastered the intellectual side of the positioning concept, consider this book the how-to manual. Expensive– it is a business school textbook– but worth way more than five lesser branding books.
3. Zag by Marty Neumeier: He calls it “radical differentiation,” but this is at heart a book about brand positioning from the guy that wrote The Brand Gap, one of my favorite branding books. It’s short, well-designed, inexpensive, and easy to understand. What more could you want?
4. The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing by Al Ries and Jack Trout: I have a soft spot for this book because it introduced me to the concept of positioning– I actually didn’t read the original Trout and Ries Positioning book until later. This is billed as a more general marketing book, but is still a positioning classic from the guys who invented the term.
5. Differentiate or Die by Jack Trout: Another classic from the usual suspect. Sure, by the time you read this, you’ll probably start feeling like you’ve heard it all before. After all, positioning is a fairly simple concept– just hard to execute well.
These books should set you on your way to a clear understanding of brand positioning. One last link: Jack Trout has a new book on positioning that just came out last fall called Repositioning: Marketing in an Era of Competition, Change and Crisis, and it is being billed as the 30th anniversary update of the original positioning concept. I haven’t read it yet, but have it on my Kindle ready to go and will write a post about it when I am finished.
In Brand Positioning Tip #1, we covered 2 of the 4 key elements of successful brand positioning done the way Dr. Kevin Keller taught me: points of parity and points of difference. Today, I’d like to highlight the third key element of good brand positioning– understanding your competitive frame of reference.
Competitive frame of reference is a fancy way of saying “the market you compete in.”
This sounds pretty simple, huh? It can be… If you run a furniture store, your competitive frame of reference would probably be the furniture market. If you run a tattoo parlor, your competitive frame of reference would probably be the tattoo market.
Those are pretty cut and dry cases. But have you ever stopped and wondered to yourself, “exactly what market am I competing in?” and realized that you are really competing in a market that is not initially obvious? Or that you are actually competing in multiple markets? If either of these situations are true, you may discover you need to create points of parity and points of difference for each market where you compete.
Here is an common example of a less-than-obvious competitive frame of reference.
What market do you think Starbucks is in? The coffee market? Maybe. In the coffee market, Starbucks competes with grocery stores, fast food restaurants, other coffee shops, and home brewers. Tough market… they aren’t competitive in the coffee market on price, there are probably options that (arguably) taste better, maybe have shorter lines. It’s hard to believe that Starbucks would have grown as big as they are by simply competing in the existing coffee market.
Ah, vacation… the time when the work shuts down for a few days and the Dark Matter Matters blog comes out of hibernation… 3 posts in 3 days!
A few months ago I wrote a post where I highlighted the top ten books behind Dark Matter Matters. In that post I promised to create a list of the books that didn’t make the top 10 cut, but are still pretty awesome.
So here, to celebrate the long holiday weekend, are some more books that have inspired Dark Matter Matters.
Books about how large-scale collaboration is pretty much the deal:
Wikinomics by Don Tapscott and Anthony Williams
The Wisdom of Crowds by James Surowiecki
The Starfish and the Spider by Ori Braffman and Rod Beckstrom
In the open source world, there’s a legendary quote attributed to Linus Torvalds (yes, he is the guy that Linux is named after) “Given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow.” The first two of these books are the extended dance remix of this quote. Each has a unique take, but both show how mass collaboration is changing everything about our society and the way we solve problems. The Starfish and the Spider is a interesting look at leaderless organizations and is a nice book for anyone trying to understand how the open source movement (and other leaderless organizations) work, and why open source is so hard to compete against. It is also a nice complement to the Mintzberg article I wrote about in my previous post.
In my recent post on the books behind Dark Matter Matters, I mentioned Dr. Kevin Keller from Dartmouth. Kevin is the author of Strategic Brand Management, which placed #3 on my list. But in addition to being an author and professor, Kevin is also a long time friend of Red Hat. He has helped us work through some of the most challenging corporate branding and positioning decisions we’ve faced over the past six or seven years.
I thought it might be nice to pass along some favorite lessons that I learned from Kevin over the years, many of which we have put into practice at Red Hat. In this post, we’ll cover 2 of the key elements behind good brand positioning: Points of Parity and Points of Difference.
There’s a working definition of points of parity and points of difference in Wikipedia here, but I hope the explanation below will appeal more to average folk who aren’t as into the marketing-speak.
Books are important to me. Growing up, almost every free wall in my parents’ house was lined with bookshelves, some of them stacked two deep. I spent most of my pre- Red Hat career in book publishing, first working during college at The University of North Carolina Press. After college, I went to work for a literary agent named Rafe Sagalyn in Washington DC. Working for Rafe was a great experience because he built his reputation on big think/idea books and business books.
His first big book was the huge bestseller Megatrends by John Naisbitt back in the early 80s. When I was there, I personally got to work with, among others, Bill Strauss and Neil Howe on their great books about generational patterns in society (check out The Fourth Turning… very prophetic these days) and Don Peppers, author of some books back in the 90s like The 1:1 Future about relationship marketing that were the grandparents of today’s books on social media marketing.
I also got to play agent and author myself too. As an agent, I represented some of Tom Bodett’s work (yes, he is the Motel 6 guy, but was also a commentator on NPR) and sold a wonderful novel called The Frequency of Souls to FSG. As author, I helped Rafe write two “cutting edge” books about getting free and open access to government information (they have not aged well, I’m afraid).
After I left book publishing, reading became fun again. I read novels and travel literature for a while, nothing that made me think too much. But when I got to Red Hat, I relapsed and started reading the big think books like the ones I used to work on with Rafe. I thought it might be worth taking a few minutes to try to remember the books that have been the biggest influences on my thinking, and get them all down in one place, so here goes:
Without these ten books, Dark Matter might not even matter to me.
Jeff Mackanic passed on an interesting post from new Yahoo CEO Carol Bartz. The money quote:
Finally, a note about our brand. It’s one of our biggest assets. Mention Yahoo! practically anywhere in the world, and people yodel. But in the past few years, we haven’t been as clear in showing the world what the Yahoo! brand stands for. We’re going to change that. Look for this company’s brand to kick ass again.
Wow. Even I wouldn’t use the word “ass” in my blog (or would I???). But clearly she feels strongly– Yahoo’s brand has fallen a long way since its heyday. Our internal brand survey data shows that even little ol’ Red Hat has surpassed Yahoo, at least among business audiences, as a defining technology company.
So what happened? She’s right– Yahoo lost its way. But I still have a soft spot for Yahoo, one of the first big Internet brands, and wish Bartz the best of luck with the rehabilitation. The Rx? One dose of Jack Trout & Al Ries, followed by Jim Collins & Jerry Porras, taken with a 12 oz glass of water on a full stomach. Call me in the morning, let me know how you feel.