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Drowning in Brand Soup

Choose any product category you like. Now, quick! Name the top five brands in the category. Hard to do isn’t it? If you picked Japanese cars, you’d quickly name Toyota and Honda. But you’d stumble on naming the number three brand. Four and five would be even harder. If you’re in North America and your product category is packaged jams and jellies, you’d also be able to quickly name Stouffer’s and Welch’s as the top two brands. But very few of us know the third most popular brand and the fourth brand is almost unknown. The point is, these days, there are so many brands kicking around, in every category, in every country, in every price range, that we’re all drowning in brand soup. To cope, our brains start editing for us, without our approval or even our permission.

Studies have now shown that most people can only name the top two players in any given market sector. The exceptions are categories where the subject has a particular interest, either professional or recreational. For instance, I have a keen interest in baseball so I should be able to easily name the top five all-time baseball franchises. (I’d say Dodgers, Yankees, Red Sox, Cubs … I dunno … Braves? Cardinals?) But when it comes to a sport that means less to me, like hockey, I can barely name two teams, much less be able to tell you anything about them.

What happens is, Honda does a good job branding itself. Toyota also does well. Then our brain throws a switch of some kind. When a brand like Nissan (the #3 brand) comes along and wants to be fitted into the Japanese car category, our brain says, “Sorry, that space is occupied.” It sends Nissan – and Suzuki, Mazda and Subaru, etc. – into a kind mental waiting room. We know they’re there but we don’t think of them as often as Toyota and Honda. The top two “own” the category. Everybody else is waiting for one or the other of them to screw up so badly there’s an opportunity to try to move up and usurp their place.

This is an insight that should give owners and managers of marketable assets pause. It doesn’t matter what market sector you’re in. It doesn’t matter if you’re B2B or B2C. If you’re not one of the top two players, you’re an also-ran. You’re what’s known as a challenger brand. That presents an entire list of strategic questions you need to ask yourself.

1 – Where do you fit in the market?
2 – Are you satisfied being a challenger brand?
3 – What are you going to do about it?
4 – Do you want to knock off one or both of the kings?
5 – Would you prefer to be a niche brand or a cult brand?
6 – Etc.

Even without the benefit of a major technological innovation, it is possible to move to the top. Facebook replaced MySpace, after all. But it’s not easy to do. You can’t count on it to happen if you don’t have a formal brand strategy.

And it will never happen for those who ignore or neglect their brands altogether. Moving to the top takes a strategic plan and a campaign of effective tactics. Heck, you need brand strategy to even become a cult brand. So don’t waste time. Get your brand strategy in order now.

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