Breaking the Category Paradigms

May 17, 2009  •  Post A Comment

One of the most powerful ways marketers can create impact in the marketplace is to reconfigure their offerings in a way that breaks with conventional category paradigms.
When that reconfiguration provides consumers with more or better options than were previously expected in the category, the new offering can become especially compelling and differentiated from competitors.
Southwest’s impact on the airline category when it entered the marketplace is a good illustration of this concept. For consumers, the airline category had become characterized by a variety of givens that were all inherent in the air travel experience; coach, first class, pricey fares, taxes, in-flight services, extra fees, procedural similarities and the like. In short, no matter which airline one flew, or when, the experience was relatively similar. There wasn’t much a consumer could do, short of paying a lot extra, to alter the overall experience.
When Southwest entered the market, it chose to streamline certain areas of the experience in order to reduce prices and it paid off. Consumers were happy to forgo a variety of amenities baked into the experience in exchange for a more affordable ticket. Other carriers, saddled by the airline experience conventionality, were now faced with a formidable competitor that was equipped with a well-defined point of differentiation.
The reason that reconfigured offerings can create powerful impact is that they leverage the strength and exploit the opportunities change brings to the marketplace. Change is wonderful because it gives consumers new choices or new ways to consider old brands. Change is also to be reckoned with because it alters the environment under which categories have comfortably operated previously.
Competitors will resist changing environments. They tend to feel that tried-and-true approaches and offerings will provide advantage. How many times have you heard stories about managers saying, “That’s the way we do it around here”?
What may have been an unassailable strength for years can become an anchor that weighs down a competitor when a reconfigured offering is unleashed in the market.
Reconfiguration is not only relevant for a marketer’s offering; it also can help media planners create significant impact as part of the communication process. Across the agencies I’ve worked with, many brands have plied this strategy to great effect. Here are two of the best case-study examples I have seen.
When considering the strategic media approach for a frozen pizza product launch, prevailing wisdom across the team initially pointed down the path of investment levels and vehicle selection consistent with consumer packaged-goods launches and traditional frozen category support.
On the other hand, initial consumer research demonstrated the new product had the potential to compete far beyond the grocery aisle and gain share from even restaurant retailers. From the media team’s perspective, it didn’t make sense to follow conventionality as the way to create best media impact.
We incrementally did a competitive assessment of restaurant category best practices and noted the significant differences in media strategy. Those different strategies would potentially feature the new brand in unexpected dayparts and environments with much more visibility than consumers or competitors might expect from a frozen pizza brand. We recommended and the entire team agreed to forge the new media direction on the brand.
Results were outstanding. Not only did the new brand quickly rise to elite brand status within the category, the visibility created by the plan yielded additional benefits. In the traditionally deal-driven frozen pizza category, the new brand’s high visibility insulated it against heavy deal periods by competitors.
In an example that yielded exactly the opposite results, our team was once called into an impromptu meeting to alert the planning team of unexpected funding for a line extension of a cold and flu remedy brand. The extension more specifically targeted sinus sufferers as opposed to cold sufferers. Our account team was very interested in having the media team simply allocate the incremental resources within traditional category seasonality.
Unfortunately, the resources provided were very thin and the planning team was uncomfortable allocating them to expected seasonality. For starters, expected seasonality focused on fourth quarter, which was disadvantageous for two reasons. First, more than a half a billion dollars in competitive spending begins rolling out in the fourth quarter, meaning overwhelming share of voice disadvantage vs. endemic cold category brands. Secondly, fourth-quarter media costs translated to less presence per dollar.
Additionally, chronic sinus sufferers, the core target for the extension, suffered all year long, not only during cold and flu season. Many cold sufferers happened to buy a sinus brand to treat cold symptoms in the fourth quarter, but was the best opportunity for the brand to attempt to harvest many sales from non-core target buyers or to build sales over time in a more focused fashion against the core over time?
We proposed to the account team that a better solution would be to use the limited resources available for support in summer months, when a higher proportion of category sales go to the core target of chronic sufferers. Conveniently, summer months provide more advantageous media costs, meaning prospects could be reached in higher proportion, without being lost in the clutter of hundreds of millions of competitive messaging.
We suggested that prospects would be more likely to make a purchase and, if satisfied with the brand, could become frequent purchasers due to the chronic nature of sinus conditions—essentially targeting the 20% responsible for 80% of sales when they would be most likely to hear the message.
The account team disagreed, directing us to provide a plan that invested resources according to standard category paradigms in the fourth quarter. As you might suspect, the investment had little impact in the marketplace. Our client was underwhelmed by the ROI attached to our course of action and we never again received incremental funding for the brand extension. The story quite possibly would have had a different conclusion had we implemented the fresh strategic approach.
What can planners do?
Here are some things that your team could do to effectively re-orient the planning strategy to break category conventionalities and create impact.
First, if your process does not include a SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats) analysis, create one. The SWOT analysis is viewed by many as a rote part of planning processes and often doesn’t receive the credit it deserves. The team should do a thoughtful assessment of factors noted in the analysis. Are strengths really strengths? In the Southwest example, it’s likely many air carriers viewed the breadth of extra services as strengths, when in fact they were weaknesses that stood in the way of offering lower fares. Honestly question the relevance of other factors in the analysis.
Secondly, take a fresh look at competitive analyses. The data may demonstrate that category competitors are falling into the trap of following the leader. If everyone is talking to consumers in the same place, it’s possible the consumer hears no one clearly. There may be better opportunities away from the clamor.
As another step, conduct a critical review of the planning parameters on which the plan is based. Assess whether each foundation element of the plan is founded on a solid strategy or whether it is simply being held over as a legacy from years of prior planning. Is the seasonality valid? Is the premise for market selection or daypart mix solid? Who has the final say on the media types included in the plan? If it is traditionally dictated by anyone other than the target consumer, a change is needed. Honestly consider the ongoing relevance of each strategic choice.
A hard, final assessment for many planners to make would be to consider how much of a slave their brand’s plan is to cost. Every media plan should execute against its objective as efficiently as possible, but the overall objective should not be maximum efficiency. Efficiency for efficiency’s sake doesn’t have anything to do with influencing target prospect. Every cost-related decision made in a plan should happen because it helps to increase impact, whether the cost per impression goes up or down. In a category where competitors appear to execute plans for efficiency, reorienting toward cost-effective impact may make a huge difference.
Marketers can often create impact in the marketplace by reconfiguring their traditional way of doing business to provide consumers with a differentiated offering that stands out among the competition. Media planners can achieve the same end with media plans. There are a variety of actions planners can take to find a potentially powerful refined planning approach. Thoughtful SWOT and competitive analyses, critical reviews of planning parameters and clarifying the role of cost in the plan can all lead to powerful innovation.
In a constantly evolving messaging environment, media planning innovation can be just the edge your brand needs to win in the marketplace.
Mark Dominiak is principal strategist of marketing, communication and context for Insight Garden.


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