The New Rules of Brand Competition

green giant peasThe old branding model is past its "sell by" date. It is a product-centered model that comes from packaged goods in the '70s and '80s; offer differentiated benefits that a particular consumer segment is thought to care about. "My peas are picked at the peak of sweetness"...that kind of thing. This model is breaking down as people try store brands and find they are "fit for purpose" at a better price. Now what?

Change the model.

People live life in four dimensions. We have functional needs, but we also are social creatures, have self-expressive needs, and crave content that we find to be entertaining and informative. Thinking this way reveals new ways of making your brand relevant:

  • Functional: go from "product feature" to "solution-based" thinking
  • Social: make your brand a celebrity that is fanned, friended, and followed. Or, create a thematic environment around a value shared by your brand and its customers (e.g. Dove and "the real meaning of beauty")
  • Self-expressive: the brand must stand for something so clearly understood, it is cultural currency
  • Content: become the logical and top of mind source for content centered on what your brand is about

But here's the catch; your competitive set will change as you offer new constructs…new ways to categorize. This takes us to the idea of a "mental marketplace" where your brand must vie for attention against other brands that are functionally unrelated. Product brands can even find they compete with celebrities and news publishers.

apple storeNoah Brier has created a freely available tool called brand tags. (You should also check out mattermeter.) Brandtags displays a logo and asks you to type the first thing that comes to mind when you see a particular brand's logo. You can then see what that brand means to everyone else.

3M competes with Apple in the mental marketplace of innovation but they express their brands differently. Experience the Apple store in SOHO. Apple has leveraged innovation, cool, and edginess into self-expression, a sense of belonging and maybe a little bit of "theme park" thrown in. Oh by the way, Apple stores reached $1 billion in sales faster than any other chain in history (previous record-holder was the Gap).

Whole Foods vies in the mental marketplace of health/fresh with Dannon, Kashi, and Subway (and others, of course). Whole Foods "competes" via brand community across social media (e.g. 800,000+ Twitter followers), has a wonderful blog and iPhone app about a wellness lifestyle from organic/fresh foods. A Whole Foods shopping bag is almost a clubhouse handshake.

When a brand wins in its mental marketplace it leverages multi-layered connections with people into spontaneous credibility that converts into sales. The unfamiliar new product becomes instantly familiar.

If store brands are going to dominate the mental marketplace for "affordable" where do you plan to play and win?

[Apple Store Image by Mark Sebastian]

Read more of Joel Rubinson's Brave New Marketing blog

Joel RubinsonJoel Rubinson is Chief Research Officer at The ARF, where he directs the organization's priorities and initiatives on behalf of 400+ advertisers, advertising agencies, associations, research firms, and media companies. Joel is a frequent speaker at industry conferences and an active blogger. He holds an MBA in statistics and economics from the University of Chicago and a BS from NYU and never leaves home without his harmonica. Follow him on Twitter: @joelrubinson.

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  • Benjamin Mack

    adam, what marketing isn't "brand marketing"? Direct Response? it appears to me there's branding with every touch a customer has with a named product, service or pundit. :-) Even in DR. You state that "Brands are destined to lose value, and disappear, if they don't attract new customers and remain vital by shifting forward with user needs." Sure. Sounds like the HBP book VALUE MIGRATION or Dan Kennedy made complicated.

    Steve Hershberger, I still love your sentiment... "The trick is in the proper manifestation of this brand and brand experience so that it is relevant, useful, valuable and of course for the brand, profitable."

    That's the crux of the issue, Steve. You nailed it, being profitable. Branding is the biggest war that goes relatively unreported.

  • adam hartung

    Brands have to migrate with market shifts, or they lose all their value. Too much brand marketing has been done without considering how dynamic markets are, and how important it is to shift with those markets. Brands are destined to lose value, and disappear, if they don't attract new customers and remain vital by shifting forward with user needs. Read more at http://www.ThePhoenixPrinciple...

  • Benjamin Mack

    If I had more time between meetings I would have written less...

    Steve Hershberger, I so enjoyed your referencing to the biological model Joel introduced us to in his initial article, 'evolve or die'. This thread harkens me back to a decade ago when Seth Godin was writing for FastCompany and teaching us readers how to spread idea viruses and the name of applied memetics.

    Anybody who doesn't see the value of discussing media ecology won't see the value of this comment either. Memetics is applied media ecology.

    Branding is human engineering, engineering a more profitable corporate culture. New branding rules that can't be followed aren't rules, they are a distraction from profitable propagation constructs and their media plans.

    Almost a decade ago, FastCompany promised readers a big idea...
    “The fundamental components of ideas act just like genes, competing for brain space the same way organisms vie for breathing space…Memetics promises marketers a more scientific way to reach consumers.” ~John Hoult, Fast Company, July 2000.

    WONGDOODY hired me as a memeticist back then, in 2000. I had used a few memetic tricks in my award winning work with Yomega Yo-Yos.

    Biological Advertising model? Yes... Memetics

    Darwin and Mendel made discoveries regarding heredity and in 1909 Wilhelm Johanssen coined the word “gene.” Memetics is considered by many a sister science to genetics. Others call memetics a psuedo-science.

    Memetics = Study of Memes
    Meme is defined as:
    "An element of a culture that may be considered to be passed on by non-genetic means, esp. imitation.” (Oxford English Dictionary)

    “A unit of cultural information, such as a cultural practice or idea, that is transmitted verbally or by repeated action from one mind to another.” (American Heritage Dictionary )

    Meme is any word, title or slang expression. The word “Internet” is a new meme
    The word “blue” is a much older meme. Memes can be a physical gesture, a habit or a selection of color or fashion. Following 9/11Americana was a hot meme evident in increased incidence of American flags on clothing, souvenirs and tattoos.

    Memetic Model
    Brands are the animals of the corporate kingdom. Animals proliferate according to the laws of genetics; brands appear to me to proliferate according to the laws of memetics.

    In 1909 when Wilhelm Johanssen pioneered the field of genetics, he discpvered at least three general hereditary observations: 1) Isolation breeds mutation; 2) Minor environmental changes can result in significantly different selective pressures and 3) Over specialization increases chances of extinction.

    Now, this ecological model works deep...
    From a genetic perspective, when a new territory emerges, species proliferate to reap the resources. Eventually, the newfound resources can not sustain the increased population. The variety is culled to sustain fewer, healthy species, best suited to the territory and competitive species thrive.

    From a branding or memetic perspective, when a new territory or target poplulation pool emerges, brands proliferate. Eventually, the newfound target can not sustain the increased competition of brands. The variety is culled to sustain fewer, healthy brands. The brands that are best suited to the target and competitive products thrive.

    Now is not the space for me to demonstrate profitable tools. And, I recently did a training call here...

    Joel, pardon me if I appear cynical to ARF's findings that TV advertising works. That appears to me as the primary function of your primary employer, to provide analysis of data supporting the positive ROI found by smartly buying Big Media advertising. How might you assure us that ARF is not simply the new millennium's version of The Jupiter Report?

    Joel, it's not luck the data you present as facts about advertising work for your advantage and the advantage of your colleagues. Academic publishing rewards overlaping internal consistencies. No argument here on your demonstrating internal consistencies between ARF, IPA and your noteworthy professors Wind, Sharp, Tellis and Burke.

    External validation is not fait accomplis of internal consistencies. Can we all agree... Data + Spin = Analysis? Presenting your analyses as "facts" appears rather presumptuous to me.

    When I was a senior Project Director at Lieberman Research Worldwide in the 1990's, working on The Chicago Trubune's value proposition for advertisers, I was paid for my subjectivity and my creativity. Our research was being used as a sales tool.

    Everybody in communication research in the 1990's remembers The Jupiter Report that promised endless riches for the forever extending meteoric growth of Internet business even while the dot-com-crash was crumbling all around us.

    In what ways might you assure FastCompany readers that ARF is not simply the new millennium's version of The Jupiter Report?

    I don't fully grasp what you mean by 360 Media Strategies. You're confusing me because in Joel's New Rules above, you begin your branding soap box with...

    "People live life in four dimensions." The New Rules of Brand Competition
    BY Joel Rubinson, FastCompany Online Sun Jun 21, 2009

    Four dimensions. Now, in these comments you are referring to 360 Media Strategies, which is limited to three dimensions. Joel, while you nod to the importance of profitability in "creating brand meaning that make them cultural currency." How? Saying we are to "not just think about competitive advantage for traditionally defined product categories" doesn't help my profitability.

    Of course advertising still works. Joel, advertising will always work. Black / White mentality doesn't work. Advertising works different with the adoption of new mass media. Suggesting that ARF is a foundation and not a lobbying organization is tasty Kool Aid for you I'm sure. I prefer clean water. Joel, as you offer, "You might want to also read my latest blog posting on my other blog." I did. I called it research before I wrote the first comment above.

    Joel, I have no qualms with you as a quality academic researcher. Simply because you are a competent quant jock doesn't make you a branding expert who gives profitable advice with working models. You haven't built a brand that I can find credited to you.

    I want the pioneering ideas of FastCompany from a decade ago. I miss the days of A Brand Called You!

  • Steve Hershberger

    Joel- You provide nn excellent point of view in this post. That said, I find the comments in line with this post almost as interesting as your article. You express a 'big picture' that comes to a conclusion I would expect out of say, a biologist. That being, 'evolve or die'.

    Some brands very much understand their customer but also understand themselves, their culture and express it in a well-balanced manner. 3M and Apple are two good examples. Knowing who you are as an enterprise (and a brand) and knowing who and what your customers want and need (although this is a journey, not a destination).

    The trick is in the proper manifestation of this brand and brand experience so that it is relevant, useful, valuable and of course for the brand, profitable. The interesting thing, I think is that a number of comments from your blog missed the strategic intent of your post and rushed to argue or defend GG, which if you read the blog, had little or nothing to do with the blog's actual content. I conclude from this there is some confusion on what is the focus of your post.

    Some of the comments defended GG, which in my mind can be viewed as a 'tactic', whereas, I believe your discussion was around the 'strategy' of the overall approach to the problem. Clearly, there the model is broken. If you take a clinical approach to it or view it from a business perspective, this is clear. You just have to change your perspective to be less biased to a traditional approach to one that is smarter and more holistic, which I think is in line with your point of view. So thank you for a great post.

  • Joel Rubinson

    luckily for me the facts about advertising still working are on my side. ARF, IPA, professors Wind, Sharp, Tellis, Burke, have all done meta-analysis to generate empirical generalizations about advertising. You should get the latest issue (June) of the Journal of Advertising Research which reports on 21 landmark meta-analyses. We call the issue, "Data 21, Mythology 0". My point in the blog is that brands need to embrace 360 media strategies and focus advertising on creating brand meaning that make them cultural currency and not just think about competitive advantage for traditionally defined product categories. But yes, it is proven that advertising still works.
    Also, please understand that the ARF is a foundation and not a lobbying organization. If the facts supported that TV advertising no longer worked, we would have reported that. It's just not what the facts tell us based on 388 cases we studied and 1,000s studied and reported on by others in that JAR issue. You might want to also read my latest blog posting on my other blog.

  • Richard Lipscombe

    Joel.... Where do I start to comment on this lot. Brands are dying or dead whether in the mental marketplace, on billboards, TV, or anywhere else. There is no brand competition - no one is listening to brand advertising anymore. The traditional system of "referrals" is guiding consumer choice today. With more choice than ever before for the same or similar products and service but with less interest in spending time choosing; today's consumers are looking for referrals. They rely on the user groups they belong to for the complete story on product range, performance, reliability, service facilities, resale value if applicable, etc. Apple has always had a strong user group - they meet online, in forums, in dedicated meetings, and now even at the Apple store. Apple is a way of life for these people - they are the "not PC crowd". So perhaps the best way to establish your Competitive Brand today is to make sure you are "the not blah crowd", ensure you have good feedback loops, ensure you fix problems yesterday, ensure you make products or provide service that people love, and ensure that your revenue model includes a "for free" element in your product or service offerings.

    What can I say? I disagree with most of what you say... Cheers, Richard.

  • Benjamin Mack

    raju nair you bring up product parity, a favorite subject of mine, if the parody is intentional.

    some might see this as reverse branding or reverse discriminators - wanna talk about making money with branding of brand mimicry?

    We might even wrangle Joel back into this conversation because "mimicry" and bio-mimicry was a big hit at CPSI in Boston last week.

    raju nair you raise questions in less confronting fashion than me. You have a style from which I would benefit to learn.



  • Benjamin Mack

    Karl Lugo, How do we use this in marketing education? That's a great question. And, a willingness to collect and analyze data will be their key to identifying best practices through continual split-testing.

    How do we teach marketing education? Here's a lecture on BRANDING with a number of undergraduates who highly rated the lecture =>

    Ronda Del Boccio, the way you describe the heart-throbs marketers use to engineer the behavior of children appears to be along the lines with Joel's 4-dimensional branding and Berndt Schmidt's Experiential Branding. It's all about gifting buyers with a visceral experience.

    Joel, thank you for gifting us with fodder to discuss. I'm sorry I mistook the Green Giant image to be part of your content.

    Given this example... isn't The Jolly Green Giant a decent example of your 4-D model?

  • Raju Nair

    dear joel,

    an interesting article for sure. but i would like to submit a point of view.

    the issue of product parity and thus the need for a brand to differentiate itself via leveraging an emotional payoff / social crutch / , etc is something that has been going on from the mid 90's.

    this is what we in branding call the discriminator - and i guess thats what you are make a reference to ...

    however the challenge in todays market place perhaps is to get a lot closer with the consumer via a digital connect.

    raju nair

  • Mike Mirkil

    Interesting thoughts, but engaging consumers on emotional benefits vs. product attributes is certainly nothing new, and your representation of the other factors seems disjointed, rather than coming from one common, organic place that emanates from the core of the brand itself.

    We've put forth a perspective on where branding is going in this evolving consumer landscape. It's centered around our fundamental belief in Brand Culture, and is available on our website. We believe that the most important thing a brand can create today is meaning. A brand must stand for something and should represent its values and beliefs transparently, inviting consumers in -- rather than shouting at them with push-oriented advertising.

    And having a number of friends who are U of C MBA's, I always like engaging in healthy debates as I am a rival Kellogg grad!

    Good discussion.


    Mike Mirkil

  • Joel Rubinson

    sorry, but the graphic chosen by FC has misled some of those posting. I have nothing against the GG. The posting is about the mental marketplace and connecting with people on 4 dimensions.

  • Ronda Del Boccio

    The giant outdated? I think not. I think the Jolly Green Giant is a superb example of branding.Thank you to Dr. Mack for sharing the long history and staying-power of this advertisement. The great thing about the JGG is that there are so many layered associations just below the level of consciousness.

    Eating vegetables becomes associated with good times, growing up strong AND with Santa Claus. Most people can hear the deep "ho ho ho" sung in the commercial and immediately know it's a Jolly Green Giant commercial. The giant has made a few minor evolutionary changes over the decades, yet he still stands tall in brand recognition.

    You may have noticed that there are a few commercials now for products meant to urge children to eat vegetables. One is for a juice and one is for a kids pasta dish. Though the commercials may be cute or clever, they do not cause the instant brand recognition that the Jolly Green Giant does.

    So Joel, I must respectfully disagree with you. The Jolly Green Giant has not expired. Thank you for the opportunity to respectfully express a differing view. Thank you also to Dr. Mack for another excellent branding lesson as well.

    The Story Lady

  • Karl Lugo

    How do we use this in marketing education? With the competition for students and philanthropic investment increasing, how can we take this "corporate" model and adapt it to academia? We have opportunity to gather data on and engage with our clients (students/alumni)in ways few businesses do, yet we don't do it well, if at all.

  • Benjamin Mack


    Judging the marketing savvy of The Jolly Green Giant by their 1970's ads is like judging radio by disco. If we want to discuss branding competition, let's give "The Green Giant" a fair fight to defend his fitness, fair enough?

    "The Green Giant" was a canning company formed in 1903 and successfully weathered two-economic contractions. I don't have single testimonial that credits me for having crafted a brand that has successfully weathered two-economic contractions.

    The Green Giant successfully weathering two-economic contractions is reason for celebration.

    Noteworthy marketing history, not until 1924 did The Green Giant label include any image, i.e., a giant pea pod. The following year, in 1925 The Green Giant used an image of a boy giant.

    Now is when it gets genius by employing brand mimicry, leveraging the cherished cues from Santa Claus.

    In 1928, the boy green giant was re-engineered to appeal to kids. They made the giant a man, making him aspirational to boys, they leveraged the most cherished kid icon: Santa Claus.

    2 Santa Cues
    1) The “Jolly” Green Giant uses the key word "Jolly."
    We've all heard Santa Clause described as “Jolly.”
    2) The Jolly Green Giant says “Ho, Ho, Ho.” just like Santa Claus.

    Joel, that's good stuff, right?

    Here's the best I can piece together... Somewhere about 1924 a marketer pitched a CEO that a picture label could help moms who had a hard time getting their children to eat vegetables.

    First, this picture on the label became a proprietary icon. Second, the marketer created vegetables more kids would eat by adding sugar. Third, optimized iconography to leverage what kids cherish most, Santa. The Jolly Green Giant says “Ho, Ho, Ho.” So does Santa Clause. Santa Clause is often described as “Jolly” so they put that in his name. What’s not to like?

    I see "The Green Giant"company as having crafted a memetic branding strategy before the word meme was coined.

    Thank you for inviting alternative perspectives.

    Sincere gratitude,


    “The fundamental components of ideas act just like genes, competing for brain space the same way organisms vie for breathing space…Memetics promises marketers a more scientific way to reach consumers.”
    -John Hoult
    Fast Company
    July 2000

    Joel, are you an advocate of memeticly engineered brands, exploiting our childhood emothions so blatantly? Curious minds need to know.