Let the customers call the tune when developing a value theme

Today’s successful brands exploit a value theme rather than a single idea or unique selling point, but the impetus for a theme must come from customers

When the Americans first entered the space race, NASA spent a small fortune trying to invent a ballpoint pen that would work in zero gravity. They never found an answer. Later, however, they were dismayed to discover that the Russians had solved the problem in a much cheaper, simpler way. They used a pencil.

Edward De Bono, the guru of clear thinking, uses this story to explain the difference between narrow “ideas”, which we humans have a habit of fixating on, and broader “concepts” or themes which are then made manifest via specific ideas. NASA fixated on the idea “pen”. The Russians focused on the concept “something that writes in space”.

Historically speaking, most brands started out as narrow ideas: “unique selling points”. But over time, these narrow brand platforms often became confining straightjackets.

Sometimes technology forced change upon the brand. Kodak stood for film and is now frantically trying to catch up with a market that has moved on to digital. Xerox stood for photocopying before realising the need to become The Document Company. On other occasions change is spurred by simple ambition. Pampers once stood for disposable nappies – a single idea. Today, increasingly, it stands for baby care – a much broader concept.

But why do so many debates about what the brand “really stands for” get so hairy, so quickly? One reason is that they amplify tensions inherent between the worlds of operations and marketing.

Kevin Ford, the Ipsos market research guru, illustrates these tensions with a simple example that echoes De Bono. For a supermarket, a convenient location, efficient staff and short checkout queues are all different ways to address a common customer desire to get things done quickly. Each specific mechanism, such as shorter queues, is just one way to address the value theme of speed. Likewise, other specifics such as family parking, a wide range of trolleys and toilets all address another value theme: “Make it easier for me”.

Operationally speaking, once you have decided to focus on a particular mechanism it’s absolutely essential you get the details right. Obsessing about operational details is a good thing. But marketers, who are more interested in broader value themes, have a terrible habit of putting nasty spanners in these neat operational obsessions. As Ford notes in his insightful and intelligent book Brands Laid Bare, published by Wiley: “Themes on the second level are generally independent of market structure and the mechanisms through which brands deliver the service or product â¦They allow you to think outside the framework of existing market structure, and explore ways in which new mechanisms might benefit the customer.”

Driver of change

Sometimes, for example, these new mechanisms can render today’s operational obsessions (and historic investments in skill and infrastructure) irrelevant. Personal mobility is a value theme. The horse and carriage and motor car are just different means of addressing it. Easy to say, but a massive operational challenge for anyone wanting to make the leap. (Historically, only one company managed to do so: Studebaker).

Likewise, if quick and easy are broad value themes, perhaps the best way of addressing them is not to worry about shop locations, queues, trolleys and toilets at all. Perhaps the best way to address them is to offer internet ordering and home delivery. No wonder those in operations don’t like marketing mavens. The lesson nevertheless is that companies (such as Tesco) that move continually back and forth from mechanism to theme and back again tend to be much better at keeping their eye on the ball of customer value.

But Ford doesn’t stop at themes. He argues, there’s yet another level of universal human motivations that really clinches it for brands. According to Ford, there are only a dozen or so really fundamental and universal human motivations (see illustration). Many of these fundamental needs are complementary (for example, we need both structure and liberty, both harmony and challenge), and the best brands address a specific combination of them, embracing both ends of the pole at the same time. Thus, for example, Coca-Cola emphasises excitement and liberty, but at the same time conveys comforting familiarity and timelessness – elements of structure and closeness.

Value themes such as “make it easier” and “make it quicker” are just intermediate expressions of deeper human desires, in this case for practicality. Successful brands, he suggests, continually reverberate across all three levels: from underlying universal motivation, to how it is made manifest through various themes, to how these themes are best delivered via specific mechanisms. Miss a level, or get them misaligned, and problems are bound to arise.

This is a neat and useful formulation. But the implications are huge. The historical origins of brands lay in the packaging of bundles of product attributes. Branding was an “inside out” process of presenting what companies had made to potential customers. But we are now beginning to realise that really strong brands work backwards from the (slow-changing) attributes of groups of people, rather than forwards from the (much faster changing) attributes of products.

Thus, for example, a recent study by German strategy consultants Roland Berger identified 19 core values that are commonly embraced (to different degrees, and in different permutations and combinations) by all European consumers. What people buy reflects their underlying values, says Kai Howaldt head of Roland Berger’s marketing practice.

You are who has bought you

According to Howaldt, brands are not defined by their selling points, unique or otherwise. They are defined by the values of the people who buy them. To understand a brand, look at its buyers’ values, not its positioning statements or product attributes. And to build a brand, start with the people and the values you want to address and then worry about the mechanisms needed to bring these values to life.

That’s an awful long way from how most brand management is practised today. And it suggests that when it comes to brands and branding, we still have an awful lot to learn.

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