Monday, August 24, 2015

Hollow Claims

Increasingly, I have encountered brands that make the following types of claims:
  • We are the quality leader in the X category.
  • We are the innovation leader in the Y category.
  • We are the service leader in the Z category.
  • We are the leader in the XYZ category (which is the worst of all claims).

Is quality important? Yes. Is Innovation important? Absolutely. Is service important? Of course. Is it desirable to be the industry leader? Sure. However, in more and more categories, as I perform brand audits, I find that large numbers of companies in many categories make these claims—so much so that the claims have become hollow. “Leader” means top, number one, not one of many striving to be top and number one. Don’t claim an aspiration unless you can uniquely deliver on that aspiration.

Regarding quality, who is the leader in the hotel industry? Is it the Ritz Carlton with its “Ladies and gentlemen serving ladies and gentlemen” service, or is it the Four Seasons, or Mandarin Oriental, or Peninsula, or Amanresorts, or Shangri-La, or InterContinental? With this list of high-quality hotel chains, should Hyatt or Westin or Marriott or Sheraton or Hilton claim quality leadership? Who makes the highest-quality shoes? Who makes the highest-quality kitchen appliances? How about the highest-quality kitchen knives? Who makes the highest-quality shampoo? Why? Based on what? Is one independent ranking enough to make it so?

Are some companies real innovation leaders? Sure. Who would argue that Apple is not an innovation leader in its category with its introductions of the iPod, iPhone, and iPad? If your company is claiming innovation as its primary point of difference, is it as far ahead of its competition in reality and perception as Apple is in its category? Or is it in a pack of companies, each of which has introduced a comparable number of innovations? In the grocery store business, Wegmans has been widely recognized as the innovation leader time. Trader Joe’s is also innovative, but with a different formula. In the auto industry, which company should claim innovation leadership? Toyota because it was the first with a significant introduction of hybrid cars? GM because of its introduction of OnStar? BMW because of its constant innovations? How about Honda or Porsche?

Do some companies stand out as service leaders? I would contend that Ritz Carlton and Nordstrom would vie for this position in their respective industries. Who is the service leader in banking? In wealth management? How about in insurance? In restaurants? In hospitals? How does service leadership relate to quality leadership? And what does it mean to be the overall leader in a category? What is the metric for leadership? Market share? Distribution? Dollar sales? Unit sales? Customer loyalty? Leadership is a fairly vague term. Leadership, but in what? How important is quality to leadership? Service to leadership? Innovation?

I would contend that quality, service, and innovation are critical to most companies in most industries. Every organization should try to continuously improve its delivery of each of these performance areas. However, unless you are the undisputed leader in one of them, you should not claim it as your primary differentiating benefit. I would never try to claim industry leadership. It is a title that can only be conferred through general consensus by outside observers over time. And I would only claim quality, service, or innovation leadership if the following hurdles were cleared:
  • Your brand is the undisputed leader in this area as evidenced by customer research, independent rankings, specific proof points, and truly measurable differences.
  • You consistently deliver against this measure across all of your products and services at all of your locations/distribution points.
  • You are, at least, perceived/recognized by your primary target audiences as a market leader.

Finally, if I made one of these claims, I would make sure that I had the resources in place to ensure consistent superiority in this area for a very long time. Don’t manage a brand that contributes to the hollow claims of quality, service, or innovation leadership. Rather, manage a brand that claims something truly unique, compelling, and believable to its target audiences. The organizations that can convincingly claim leadership in one of these three areas (quality, service, and innovation) are rare indeed.

© 2015 Brad VanAuken, Reprinted from Brand Aid, second edition, available here or here.

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