Could the future of brand rivalry lie in being asymmetrical?

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Asymmetrical brand strategyThree seemingly unrelated articles got me thinking today about the future of brand competitiveness in a world where the competitors are increasingly globally scaled.

Conventional knowledge suggests that brands square off in the arena of public awareness. Each party assembles its awareness and loyalty generators and then launches a charm offensive to consumers offering them multiple reasons and multiple channels to choose them over others. In the fight between big and big, that’s a relatively straightforward competition. But how do you take on the biggest brands in the world if you are a much smaller marketing force or if you’re looking for an alternative strategy?

Perhaps you do so by not taking them on directly. And perhaps you don’t take them on alone. The thought for this came from an article by Stan McChrystal (thanks Alex) on the lessons he learnt in Iraq: that a massive and powerful adversary can be seriously affected by a much, much smaller force that leverages its network and moves quickly to find points of vulnerability. The relevance of McChrystal’s point, that it takes a network to defeat a network, for business today is captured neatly in this thought. “Our organization was designed for a problem that no longer existed; we had brought an industrial age force to an information-age conflict … I believe this same challenge confronts organizations in every sector of the modern environment.”

Now combine that idea of competing via a wired network with this one from an article on the branding of global dissent: that a brand centred on principle will act as a powerful cohesion point for diverse people. As the article points out, people will address issues together, under a banner, that they would not address individually. From the article: “[Gene] Sharp … in 1973 outlined “198 Methods of Nonviolent Action” in the first of many of his works that provide a road map for orchestrating protest movements around the world … Sharp’s list defines how to create a unique and recognizable identity for a movement. It recommends establishing “symbolic colors,” slogans, caricatures, sounds and symbols in service of the greater cause” Brand, by any other name.

How do these ideas come together? They suggest that a powerful brand strategy may lie in applying the same principles to the way a brand competes. That, instead of going head to head, companies could employ an asymmetrical brand strategy; one that coalesces people into a network centred around a “protest”-based principle (using social media for example) and then uses that principle as a guerrilla tactic to compete with rivals at points where they are most vulnerable.

What would happen if brands were able to rally their customers in the same way as protest organisers have done in Istanbul? And what if, instead of protesting, they were able to make their presence felt through surges of purchases?

The key differences here to traditional strategies lie in the use of principle as the core underlying value proposition, in the rapid assembly (and disassembly) of competitive offers and in the thought that competition for the larger brand may not lie in one recognisable rival but in a network of challengers who nip at them from various points, sometimes independently, sometimes simultaneously.

In the same way, challenger brands could come together to out-innovate their behemoth rivals, disrupt a sector, force change by adjusting consumer expectations and then … leave.

Such a concept now seems increasingly possible, given, as Don Peppers points out, that:

  1. There is an increasing “inventory” of previous innovations that can now be combined,
  2. There are a growing number of creative minds that can be deployed,
  3. People can now interact at greater speed and with increased efficiency, and
  4. Higher levels of trust exist between people who share.

While the future for large brands increasingly lies in presence, the wider competitive future for some brands in some markets may lie in the application of a combination of principles and pace – essentially treating the scaled players as a constant backdrop against which they rally and then retreat (as reaction builds).

Perhaps brands have more to learn about competing for loyalty and attention from unorthodox organisations than they realise.


Photo of “Crowd 2” taken by Karen_O’D, sourced from Flickr

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