Marketing plots: the usual suspects (and two ways to beat them)

Judge me by my size do you?

This is a story about advocacy and rigid leadership-sets.
It begins with a seemingly simple question:
Why do “the usual suspects” keep winning?

“The usual suspects” is a marketing pattern/plot familiar to anyone in the venture capital business:
1. The best venture capital funds get more chances to invest in the best startups.
2. The best startups have better chances to making big exits with big multipliers.
3. Having the best exits further cements a fund’s reputation as being among the best.
4. Repeat.

A virtuous or vicious cycle, depending on a VC’s rank.

A similar dynamic will be found within engineering:
1.The best engineering firms will get a disproportionate amount of opportunities to tender for bigger, better, higher profile projects.
2. High profile projects draw more attention to their best of breed work.
3. Having best of breed high-profile projects further establishes them as an industry leader.
4. Repeat.

How about universities?
1. The best universities are/have the first choice of the best students and faculty.
2. The best students and faculty are mutually drawn to each other.
3. The work/results/success perpetuates the university’s status as among the best.
4. It stays up in the rankings/league tables year after year. (The closer you get to the top of rankings the less movement you will find from year to year).

The usual suspects plot is especially common in professional services and large B2B businesses. Notable categories are legal services (where the leader-set is known as “the magic circle”) and accounting/audit firms (“Big Four”).
Indeed, success begets success.

But what else is there?

The dynamic plotted here is the tendency of big scale advocacy-led categories to have highly rigid leader-sets.
Two questions come to mind: First, what drives this rigidity at the top? And then – What can second tier players and challenger brands do about it?

What keeps the leader-set rigid?

The different categories mentioned are united by two dimensions:

Success criteria: While you are likely to have many players, both global and local, and will see vast differences between small players and big players, they are still judged on similar criteria e.g. successful investments for VCs or successful projects for engineering, and additionally some generic criteria such as quality of service, efficiency, etc.
Overall, brand reputation in these categories will be a compound of a multitude of highly contended attributes.

Buying process: Usually tender based (or similarly structured), the buying process is rational, complex and cautious, even conservative. It also tends to involve multiple stages filtering candidates into a short-list for deeper investigation.

So, while a somewhat rigid leadership could be said for, for example, the automotive category, car brands have a wider variety of segment-dependent success criteria and many more opportunities to differentiate their products and communications then most brands in our case. That’s why while cars are also expensive, rational purchases and advocacy is important in that category as in many others, they do not show the same level of rigidity typical of the previously mentioned categories.

(simply: you can have rigid leader-set without being advocacy-led, but you are unlikely to find an advocacy driven large-scale category without a rigid leader-set)

When the two dimensions are combined, our cyclical plot is put into motion:
Facing a complex and weighty decision, the prospects, often making the choice for an organisation, know they need to deeply investigate a short-list of contenders. To make the process manageable, they will often limit it to the more well known brands, or at least include more of those in the consideration set. Naturally, they will tend to prefer leading brands if they can afford them – the old adage that “no one has ever got fired for buying IBM” is usually true when a corporate chooses a premium service.

As a result – the established leaders will frequently feature in the short-list and get more shots at winning the business. Being included and winning will further establish them as leaders and the cycle is complete.
This how “The usual suspects” are born.


Breaking into the consideration-set

So, if you’re not a “usual suspect” what can you do about it? How do you create opportunity and consideration? At first look, this plot is so rigid that many people doubt whether marketing can make any difference.

The full answer is too multifaceted for a simple blog-post, and, naturally, depends on your unique case. However, there are two simple action routes that are worth mentioning and are often overlooked.

There are two hints leading down those routes:
First, it’s the fact that “best” is a shorthand for “reputed to be the best”, so anything that influences your reputation can (gradually) move you up the ranks.
The second hint is by the fact the terms “leadership set” and “consideration set” may overlap but are not the same.

Combine those two facts together and here are two actions you should take if you wish to get to the point where you are “in the room”, and in many tender processes this would be literally about getting to be in the room for a presentation, pitch or “bake-off”.

Invest internally to cultivate advocacy:
Advocacy is more than word of mouth. It’s positive, focused word of mouth, used with intent. Many marketing managers focus more on communicating existing advocacy – through brand communications using ever shrinking budgets. But even if you had the budgets they would build reputation, and reputation alone isn’t enough to break through into a limited consideration set.

What’s the simplest way to cultivate advocacy over time? Investing internally. This may sound counter-intuitive, but if you are in an advocacy-led category, it’s likely that the biggest advocacy engine is your own people. Your talent creates your brand experience, and positive experiences create new advocates. Encouraging your team to deliver on your brand promises, not only will you cultivate advocacy, you will cultivate the right kind of advocacy, bringing your points of difference to the foreground.

Your name is mentioned in the market in three ways – there are the times you talk about yourself. The times you are a part of a conversation about yourself and the times people are having a conversation about you without you taking part. The last type is likely to be the most frequent and also the one you’re least able to influence through direct communications. The best way to influence throughout the three types is by investing internally and encouraging your talent to improve your brand experience.

The right kind word from a past client or someone who have been in direct touch with your brand and had a positive experience is exactly what can make prospects check you out. It’s stronger than anything else.

Become the wildcard:
Even when there are some good advocates saying good things about you out there, it’s unlikely to happen at the right timing for you to be invited to a tender. If a prospect even asks a third party about you of their own initiative, you’re half way there. But for most second-tier players this would be the exception to the rule.

This is where top-of-mind comes in.
Top-of-mind is often looked down on by B2B and professional services marketing managers (as well as branding agencies) as belonging to a crude world of FMCG, or simply as impractical without the benefits of consumer brand communications frequency.

Top of mind is important as it will often be the spark that moves you from the long-list to the short-list. Prospects often want to include a “wildcard” in their short-list. They may do it to seem more considered by senior management – less automatic in their choice of candidates. They may do it just to “spice things up”, because seeing the same brands every time gets boring. But whatever the reason, consideration sets tend to include a token wildcard candidate. By standing out and being different, you can increase the likelihood of being top-of-mind for the role of wildcard.
After a couple of wins, you may start getting closer to being a usual suspect, at least for that client. With time and advocacy, you will climb the ranks.

At this point you may think that the second advice is a bit obvious. Isn’t it simply the classic principle of differentiation? To a degree – you are right.
However, ask yourself this:
From the total of your current actions and communications, how much is dedicated to setting you apart and making you come across as unique, and on the other hand how much effort is spent on ticking generic boxes just to prove you’re as good as the first-tier players on things most clients take for granted to even remotely consider you?
Thought so.

These may be just two courses of action, but because they are so often overlooked, you will find they are likely to include surprisingly cost-effective activities considering how versatile they are.

And what about the leaders, “the usual suspects”, who are already “in the room” and likely to be named as top of mind? Those brands are big, established and often seemingly identical. Can they be content in their sameness while the RFP’s just roll in?
Not at all, but their story will be told another time.

In the meantime – know that you can challenge them.
No player is protected against a wildcard.

Cross posted from “The Crossed Cow” (The Partners blog)

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