December 2, 2005

Attenuate Goliath’s Brand and Reputation Strength

Posted in David vs. Goliath, management, marketing at 10:24 am by scottmaxwell

This post is part of the overall posting “How Can David Beat Goliath?- Strategy #7: Attenuate Goliath’s Strength“:

Well-run large companies have a well-known name and a solid reputation. This is a powerful strength. But, as with all of Goliath’s strengths, you can and should take steps to attenuate it…and try to get the edge!

Brand/Reputation Definition…

In a lot of ways, branding has been turned into a relatively esoteric topic by the “experts”, so I try to boil it down to its essence here. My definition of brand/reputation is basically the mental model (or models) that your customers, prospects, employees, partners, etc. have regarding your company, its products and its services. Brand/reputation is not a company, product, name, or symbol, but rather a mental model (more specifically, a repeatable biochemical reaction) that gets triggered in people’s minds when they read or hear your name or see your symbol (the mental model could be an image, sound, touch, feeling, taste, thought process, or any other type of reaction.)

My best simple example of this is Pavlov and his experiment with a dog (Pavlov’s dog). Essentially, Pavlov figured out that if you ring a bell and feed a dog over and over and over then, over time, the dog will associate the bell with being fed (which triggers saliva in the dog). After repeated training the bell will make the dog salivate without the food being given. The bell triggered the mental model that made the dog salivate.

Attenuating the large company brand strength…

So, how can David build a better brand (mental model) than Goliath? Before I address the point, I need you to do a quick test… below is a list of names and I want you to quickly (within one second each) identify what comes to mind:

1. Webex
2. Google
3. Kleenex
4. Linux
5. MySQL
6. Technorati

Assuming you have heard of them, pretty easy, right? If you thought “web conferencing, web search, tissue, open source operating system, open source database, blog search, and social tagging” then you would get the same answers that I did (If you salivated, you got a different response than I did!).
Now let’s try another set:

1. Oracle
2. IBM
3. Microsoft
4. Computer Associates (now called CA)
5. Procter & Gamble

Much more difficult, right? You probably did not get a single, clear mental model associated with the name. All of these companies are relatively well known, but the name doesn’t necessarily mean anything in particular (or, perhaps, it means a lot of things or it means different things to different people!), as the mental model has gotten too complex and lost its focus.

Other than Kleenex, the first set is of relatively new companies but the brands have very specific meaning. The second group is of older, larger companies with many products. Larger technology companies should be branding at the product or product set level as they grow, but in general they do not do this very well (they generally try to include their company name into the product name because it is well known).
In contrast to the large technology companies, Procter & Gamble is an example of a company that is particularly good at creating true brands well beyond its company name. Just for laundry products, as an example, Procter & Gamble makes Bounce, Gain, Downy, Cheer, Dreft, ERA, Febreze, Ivory, and Tide! Each brand stands for something, and most consumers do not even know that the products come from Procter & Gamble.

The emerging growth company opportunity…

Given that large technology companies are not addressing this opportunity very well, and they already have the Scope Advantage, emerging growth companies can seize the opportunity to become THE brand in their particular market niche! The goal is that when people hear or read your name or see your symbol, they trigger the mental model AND if they think of the mental model, they trigger your name or “see” your symbol!

In my view, it is a simple three-step process of packaging the mental model, making sure that your business is truly aligned with the mental model, and then delivering the mental model:

Step 1: Package the mental model. Determine the best message for your company/product (that is, how do you best allow people to understand how you fit into “their world”?).

You could start from scratch and try to explain everything or you could do the same thing that a productive developer does and package together pre-built components. The pre-built components in this case are the pre-existing mental models and associations that people are already carrying around. If you can understand them, link the right ones together and then link your company to them, you win!
Geoffrey Moore describes several approaches to creating these associations in his classic book Crossing the Chasm (a must read in my view).

One approach that he suggests for the elevator pitch (with some slight modifications that I made):

Just fill in the blanks:

  • For (insert specific target customers)
  • Who are dissatisfied with (insert the current alternative)
  • Our product is a (insert new product category)
  • That provides (insert key problem-solving capability)
  • Unlike (insert the alternative product)
  • We have assembled (insert all aspects of your customer approach, which he calls the “whole product”)

He gives the Intuit example (this is a relatively dated example at this point) for the above approach:

  • For the bill-paying member of the family who also uses a home PC
  • Who is tired of filling out the same old checks month after month
  • Quicken is a PC home finance program
  • That automatically creates and tracks all your check-writing.
  • Unlike Manage Your Money, a financial analysis package,
  • Our system is optimized specifically for home bill-paying.

Geoffrey gives a lot of color around this idea as well as different approaches for different situations as the company and the market evolve. (As I said, I highly recommend the book.).
That said, there are a lot of ways to skin the cat when it comes to simplifying messages down to their core and developing the right mental model and associations to your audience, so if you don’t like this approach then pick one or two that are equally simple or even simpler. My best advice is to read through a few books to find the simple approach that will help you form your simple message, but to ignore all of the complexity that is discussed. It is much more important to have one simple message and then to overcommunicate it to the market (step 3 below) than it is trying to get too clever with the message!

Step 2: Make Sure that every activity that you do is aligned with your message and that your message is aligned with every activity that you do. The key is that the product, marketing activities, sales, professional service, customer service, and everything else that you do reinforce the message as simply and effectively as possible. Anything that you do that is not aligned with the message does not reinforce it and will probably tend to complicate it.

Step 3: Deliver the mental model over and over and over…and then deliver it some more!

Once you have the message that you want to deliver, start communicating it. The key is to recite it enough so that your

  • senior management is repeating it,
  • marketing messages are repeating it,
  • salespeople are repeating it,
  • customer service people are repeating it,
  • influencers from outside the company are repeating it, and then
  • prospects and customers are repeating it.

You need to make sure that you have seeded the message enough so that everyone can and does repeat it until it truly becomes everyone’s mental model for what you do AND the mental model is associated with your company! Before long, you will have THE brand in your niche (so long as you deliver the message AND deliver against the message!).

The key point here is that it is not possible to overly simplify or overcommunicate your message. You can only undercommunicate and/or make your message too complex. Keep communicating! Play this game a few times and you will understand the point…

Additional thoughts:

  • In my view, there are two ways that emerging growth companies fail on these points. One cluster of failure is ignoring the issue completely, as it is considered fluff. This isn’t fluff…it is important stuff and can be engineered into the business just like everything else! The second cluster of failure is that companies spend way too much time wordsmithing and otherwise perfecting the messages and not nearly enough time with the other two steps, which are the steps that really make or break your approach. A perfect message that does not get delivered is wasted! An acceptable message that gets delivered is powerful!
  • None of the steps above requires hiring branding consultants or even having a branding expert on hand. The point is to spend 10-20 hours over the course of a couple of months getting very clear on your message and then managing the message into everything that you do and every contact that you have! You can only go wrong by having a message that is too complex or undercommunicating it!
  • At some point, the market will start talking about the new category with companies like yours…my view is that you need to keep the process above going until it is overly-clear that the mental model has been built and that you are considered one of the leaders in the market.
  • You will bake yourself in as the brand name in your market niche if you continue innovating your product and business activities so that they continue to deliver more value to your customers in the niche. The more you improve your performance, the better you bake in your company as the leader!
  • If you get large enough that you are going to enter a new niche, keep in mind the large company issue. You may want to create a completely new brand for your attack of the niche (not common practice with technology companies, but it should be!).

Well-run large companies are also well known and have brands and reputations that have complexity associated with them. The key for the emerging growth company is to own the brand and reputation for the market niche that you play in. If you do it right, you will attenuate Goliath’s strength, and gain an edge!



  1. […] A brand name and reputation […]

  2. […] A very specific brand identity in your product market. I have discussed this point in a recent post. The point is that you want to be the “Kleenex, Webex, or Google” of your market niche…so intertwined with the product market that your brand name gets confused with the product market (this is not fluff!) […]

  3. crizette said,

    Very nice strategy in here to build own reputation of your product. I agree everything here and really, to gain reputation of your brand, you have to be unique and feed information to the people what makes your brand unique but not far different from any other brands you compete with.

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