Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Are you inadvertently building a market for your copycats? (Or, Red Bull vs. Ralph Lauren.)


Yesterday's post was about how Red Bull increases my productivity. Today it's about how this product has built a market for its copycats. And how Red Bull can learn from Ralph Lauren in this regard.

When Red Bull first came out I thought it was disgusting. I associated it with chemically, processed food created in a laboratory. It brought to mind drunken college kids who have to show up lucid to class in the morning. I saw the drinkers of this concoction as "users," like drug users, and wondered why anyone would pay $2.99 for a skinny little can of the brew.

As you know by now I have tried Red Bull and have turned into a complete addict.

The problem for Red Bull is, I am now loyal to the category - not the brand.

In fact, my energy drink addiction can be fed by virtually any product that has the same or similar ingredients. I found a copycat version at Aldi - it works just fine! ("Gridlock.") Plus they have those little energy shots drinks for less than half the price what you pay in CVS. If I can get back to Aldi fast enough, I will load up and never pay for the brand name again.

What did Red Bull do wrong? How can they fix it?

The answer is not in the obvious place - Starbucks. Yes, I know it is popular now. But the brand has lost that intimate feeling it used to have. It's a commodity. And the experience of a "third place" is copied as well or better by others, like Panera and Cosi. The coffee isn't all that good either - honestly the Panera stuff is just as good and so is the illy brand. And others. Good coffee is good coffee.

No...the safest brands are not innovative products nor are they experiences. Brands are the ripest for copying - an ingredient, a technology, a process is easy to attack. Experiences also can be broken down to the lowest common denominator and then built back up by a competitor. But one kind of brand that is relatively safe is the aspirational brand. And a perfect example is Ralph Lauren.

I think I've mentioned that my mother knew Ralph Lauren back when he was Ralph Lifshitz and the whole WASPY concept behind the brand was probably an inkling in his brain. But now, decades later, the brand is an awesome testament to the power of aspiration. When you plunk down $80 for a plain wool navy blue Ralph Lauren vest, you only want the "original" and "authentic" little horsey. No copycat will do, no matter how well it's executed and no matter how high-quality the cloth. Only Ralph Lauren is Ralph Lauren.

The answer does not come from the marketer himself. The name is just a name, the company is just a company, the vest is just a vest.

No - the answer comes from the customer. It is we who are the "fashion police." We have an aspiration to life the life of what we see in those Ralph Lauren ads. It's a fantasy. And to keep the fantasy alive, we absolutely have to have the authentic - overpriced - product itself.

The lesson for marketers, who seek to build unbreakable brands:

Innovation is overrated. The navy blue vest is not innovative at all.

Your messages, in copy form, are completely irrelevant. People are too busy to read.

Your company itself, and all of its executives, don't matter either. You can operate out of a shoebox with a couple of friends who never attended business school.

The only thing that matters is developing a fantasy that is real, relevant, and consistently kept strong over the long term in the mind of the customer.

Once the customer is attached to the brand, believes in what it stands for, you don't have to do anything else but keep that fantasy alive.

It works for Ralph Lauren - it works for the Kardashians - it works for Coca-Cola - and it can work for you too. 

Branding is the art of creating and sustaining the fantasies that people will pay for - distilled into a science in the hands of a select and skilled few.

If you want to be one of the few, focus on the fantasy. The human factor. And stop worshiping at the altar of innovation. 

Have a good day everyone, and good luck!


Image source here