Product brands today are under tremendous pressure to survive, and it’s not driven by companies like GM desperately seeking to cut back. The root cause is the decline in consumer consumption and the corresponding lack of interest in brand options. Decades ago Al Ries and Jack Trout wrote the brilliant book Positioning, explaining that consumers (even back in the 1970s) faced information overload and so defended themselves by creating little ladders of product consideration in their heads. If a person is only moderately interested in a product — say watches — she might be able to rattle off Casio, Timex, Swiss Army and Rolex. In her mind, she only has four rungs on the watch brand ladder. By comparison, a guy who loves watches might think of scores of brands: Accurist, Adriatica, Alpina, Aviator, Baume et Mercier, Bell & Ross, Breitling, Bulgari, Bulova … with lots more rungs in his head.
The goal of brand managers is to grab a rung in that mental positioning ladder, and the classic strategy is to “position” your brand vs. someone else. If Hertz is No. 1 in car rentals, Avis tries harder. This positioning strategy was hot in the 1980s and early ’90s — think of the Coke vs. Pepsi wars or Wendy’s “Where’s the Beef?” — but has cooled off recently, with far fewer brands attacking others or deliberately taking position against a competitor’s attributes. It’s time to reconsider. As consumers retrench in this severe recession, their mental consideration set of potential consumption options is way down. There are fewer rungs in their heads. Someone may love Saabs, but what about Saturns and Pontiacs? And if some brands will fade from these mental ladders, shouldn’t you try to make sure it’s your competitor, and not you?
The point for marketers is you now need to be aware, more than any time in the past two decades, of how your brand is positioned against other options. Consumers are backing away from the cereal aisle, and some sweet brands are about to get taken off the shelf.