Here’s the only definition of brand strategy you will ever need: Strategic brands bend the will of the market.
It doesn’t matter if you’re the coolest brand, the biggest or the most innovative. None of those things are defensible on their own.
Real strategy is when you make moves today to condition the market, so that tomorrow the market prefers you over your competitors.
Apple conditioned the market to see electronics as identity markers.
Architectural Digest conditioned the market to see interior design as social voyeurism.
Equinox conditioned the market to see the gym as a temple of “high-performance living”.
All of them created conditions that favored them over anyone else in the space. This is real strategy.
If you can’t look at all of your brand activities and decipher how you are shaping the perception of your category in a way that positions your brand as the natural winner, you do not have a strategy. You are merely reacting to the rules that another player has written.
At any given point, the market moves forward linearly. Products, features, ideas, expectations, behaviors and the overall story that defines them will continue to move forward in the same direction along the same line.
But when you bend the will of the market, you bend the direction of that line. You change the overall story so that suddenly your brand is on the critical path, and your competitors have fallen off.
There are a few ways to bend the will of the market, regardless of whether you are a small company or a big one, B2C or B2B, first to market or last.
What matters more than anything else is that your brand resists falling on the linear path. Bending the will of the market is always hard, and there is no guarantee, but the brands that are successful are usually the ones that take the biggest swings.
Create new context
Every category has rules, but some of the most interesting brands exist at the border between two different categories, where the rules of one are traded in for the other.
James Dyson revolutionized the vacuum cleaner market by introducing bagless cleaners, except they played in the rules of high technology. Dyson conditioned consumers to see vacuum cleaners as high-tech, high-performance appliances and managed to shift the perception of cleaning from a chore to something more sophisticated and even desirable – and far less tied to the female domain.
When a vacuum becomes a technological wonder, there’s no need to hide the inner machinery anymore. Dyson designed clear bins so users could see the cyclone at work, and encased the vacuums in sleek, bold housing.
As a tech product, Dyson put itself in a category of one. They bent the will of the market by creating new context around the meaning of a vacuum cleaner.
Changing the company you keep gives you access to a new set of mythologies to play with and benefit from.
Create new identities
Why did Tesla win while other, highly capable incumbents lost? Why was Tesla so highly valued before they even shipped their cars, oftentimes at the expense of Ford, GM and Toyota’s stock prices?
It wasn’t because of the technology. It was because no other brand was investing in the expression of identity.
In all of his branding and marketing efforts, Elon wasn’t really telling us about the car. He was telling us about the driver.
Tesla conditioned the market to see electric vehicles as luxury, high-performance cars at a time when EVs were seen as feeble playthings, but even more remarkably, they conditioned us to see the driver as a future-forward innovator when EV owners were seen as backwards-looking tree huggers.
Tesla understood that creating a new identity would bend the will of the market in a way that no other player could catch up with.
Create new needs
Chobani transformed the yogurt market in the United States with the introduction of greek yogurt, but in order to succeed with an audience who already had a very entrenched taste for sweeter, thinner yogurt reserved solely for breakfast, the brand had to recondition what Americans thought yogurt was for in the first place.
Tapping into a growing consumer interest in high-protein diets and natural foods, Chobani was one of the first functional food brands, touting the higher order functions of greek yogurt that was high in protein, kept people fuller longer, and led to better performance throughout the day.
Nobody had seen yogurt as a functional food before. Yoplait commercials showed us french women eating yogurt pots on swings in green fields (or something like that). We weren’t even looking at food in terms of function as a society at that point. But Chobani educated its customer to care about something even more important than taste or calories.
Yogurt went from being a light snack to a powerhouse meal. Chobani released new fruit and topping combinations that were both sweet and savory, as well as new packaging formats that looked and traveled like a to-go meal.
They created a new need that has completely changed the way we qualify, buy and eat our yogurt every day.
If you are not bending the will of the market toward your brand, you’re paving the path of the market to your competitor. In most industries where hypergrowth can happen overnight, this is a zero sum game.
“Brand is just a perception, and perception will match reality over time.” Those are Elon’s words. Perception is the most important tool you have.
Don’t go for the linear story. Go for the exponential story that pulls the market toward you and away from others.