Great brands continue to thrive for years after their introductions. Others don’t. The great ones control their categories. They set examples for others to try to mimic. Brands like Hallmark, Nike, Michelin, Southwest Airlines and Mercedes are emblematic of great brands. Blockbuster, Pan Am, Circuit City and Oldsmobile represent the fallen. So why are there great, enduring brands and brands that can’t go the distance? I believe it is brand leadership.
Now, granted, there are other factors like brand management, operational efficiencies and market gyrations that can affect long-term performance. However, the starting point for almost every great brand is the leadership position taken at inception or assumed at some later point of enlightenment.
The instant an advertiser begins the brand development process, it inherits the leadership position in its category or industry – guaranteed. How’s that, you ask?
Defining a Brand
Review the definition of a brand: A claim of distinction. Once successfully differentiated, through brand development and branding, an organization has separated itself from its competitors and thus, assumed a leadership role. That same differentiation will help determine the most deliverable target audience , and the underpinnings of long-term success are almost immediately put into place.
The clearest example that comes to my mind of a company that established a brand distinction from its inception, and thus, a leadership position, is Nike. There were plenty of athletic shoe manufacturers around in the early 1970’s…Adidas, Converse, Keds, Puma, Reebok and more. But their identity was that they made “athletic” footwear. Nike founders Phil Knight (a miler on the University of Oregon track team) and Bob Bowerman (Oregon track coach) brought a passion for running to athletic shoe production. When Nike came onto the scene in 1971, its brand promise was to make a shoe that would be the most comfortable, lightweight and technically innovative on the market specifically for runners.
The development of the air cushioned shoe vaulted Nike to the forefront of running shoes that decade and to say the company has expanded its brand from there, is an understatement. While moving into shoes and apparel for all sports, Nike has remained true to its initial branding promise. From the iconic “swoosh” logo, to endorsements by the top athletes in every sport, to the Nike Town stores, the company has occupied the leadership position by producing high quality athletic shoes that allow the everyday consumer to wear the most innovative footwear while engaging in a pursuit of athletic excellence. Nike encourages its customers to “Just Do It!”
Categories of Brand Leadership
Brand leadership tends to land in one of four major categories:
- Price. The price leader is that brand that owns the position. Two obvious leaders here are Wal-Mart at the low-price end of the spectrum and Rolls Royce at the high end.
- Innovation. Lots of folks like to stake this claim. Apple in technology and Tesla in transportation are perfect examples.
- Cultural connection. Harley Davidson is king in this category. There could be an argument made for Starbucks here, maybe even PayPal…
- Quality. Maytag started this category forty-some years ago. BMW certainly claims this distinction in the auto industry.
From these four, we can drill down further and find leadership in sub or smaller leadership positions like safety – we think Volvo. Convenience – Amazon.com. Courageous – (When it absolutely, positively has to be there) FedEx, and Irreverence – Virgin tops the list. We could continue to go deeper and deeper. A few years ago, Kevin Roberts, Worldwide CEO at Saatchi & Saatchi created a concept called “Lovemarks.” He then published two books on the subject, Lovemarks and The Lovemarks Effect, (available from, you guessed it, the leader in convenience, Amazon.com) in which he asserts that for brands to survive, they must create Loyalty Beyond Reason in consumers. The books highlight brands that have achieved the adored or loved status including M&M’s, Cheerios, Post-It Notes, Lexus, Tide and Coppertone, among many others.
Value of Brand Leadership
So what’s the importance of brand leadership? It’s the added value good brand positioning offers. It engages consumers on an emotional level to adopt the brand as their own – like a badge. It also allows for better brand management, internal brand adoption and crystal-clear communication.
What’s the downside of brand leadership? Well, living up to your claim is one. Having the guts to advertise like a leader, not a follower is another. Sticking with it and seeing it through in a rapidly changing environment is a challenge. Having the vision of the future is mandatory. But, the benefits far outweigh the downside.
About the Author
Jacquie has a passion for all things brand. In addition to her brand work at BrandSavants, she leads client digital marketing and social media initiatives. She is a Certified Brand Strategist and serves as a managing partner of The Brand Establishment, an association of ad agencies whose owners are Certified Brand Strategists.
At BrandSavants, we transform organizations by elevating the brand conversation. That catapults our clients' thinking which grows brand value and increases worth.