Your category’s brands all seem the same, they may be differentiated on the identity/communications level, but when you look at the actual perceptions (see brand vs. “brand”) of the target audiences, you find out that their perceptions are similar between competitors and pretty much correlate to the market-share of each player. It is an eerie feeling, as if no brand in the category stands for anything, even more so “owns” any positioning arena.
Common in markets where the brand experience in a category has been generic or dormant for very long – this could be due to lack of competition, or any other type of stagnation. It can also happen regardless of product innovation, because product innovation may stay purely functional if brands don’t differentiate.
I’ve found it is extremely common in emerging markets, where often many service categories used to be government owned or just heavily regulated. A condition increasing the likelihood of this syndrome is when players try to adopt “best practices” from other markets instead of coming up with the meaningful moves necessary to shift image in their own market.
The tacit structure is simple. People’s perception of their experiences is poor, and their expectations are low – so they don’t think players in the category stand for anything.
They will only switch brands on extreme negatives (e.g. a health crisis or gross-misconduct leading to a full scale public image crisis).
If you talk to them using focus groups or interviews, people in “trapped categories” will mostly talk about their fears / anger with relation to the brand experience. If you try to tap them for ideas, they will articulate their ambitions as the removal of negatives.
Roughly, in these situations, you will find customers in qualitative research divide into two groups: “Weak customers”, from marginal segments talk mainly about fears. Form the “please stop the pain“ group.
“Strong customers”, from sought-after and courted segments, will vent their anger about all players in the category. This the “go be stupid somewhere else“ group.
Ignoring this condition triggers the “generic loop complex”, which very simply works like this:
- A brand’s category is largely generic
- The company discover that the category, their brand included, is generic.
- They turn to the customer for answers.
- The customers can only speak of their generic experiences
- The company bases any vision or “new” concept this input, mistakenly labelling it as “customer insight”, or it borrows undifferentiated best practices from other markets as its home audience requirements seem generic.
- Managers come up with generic briefs ; Agencies with generic solutions
- Go to 1.
You have to be brave.
Look inside for answers. Another focus group just won’t do. Take a hard look at the company and realise what made this brand get so far. Then build on your best qualities. Start to communicate what you wish to stand for. Your audience can not tell you what the break-through experience should be, simply because they have never experienced it. Trying to force them into giving you an answer will just make things worse.
Only you can find what it all means.
If you want to make sense of your world, MAKE it.
Sense is made, rarely found.
Facts are found, stories are created.