Brand Strategy: Does Your Brand Have An Enemy? It Needs One.

The inspiration for this article comes from faithful Brandscapes reader Kent Davidson of Advanta Design.

In designing products for companies like Bombardier, Samsung and Cisco, Kent makes it a habit of pushing the envelope to create new possibilities.  So he was quite struck by the irony of the Mediocrity car company.

The Appeal of Mediocrity

Mediocrity is a fictional automaker invented by Subaru.  It is featured in a hilarious ad campaign that you’ll enjoy watching.  In order to position itself as a leader in innovation, Subaru concocted Mediocrity as an antithetical enemy that lives up to its name.


The ad campaign, as well as being very funny, is a smart piece of strategy.  It gives Subaru what every brand needs, an enemy.

What Do Brands Need to Succeed?

If you were assigned the task to build a new brand, what steps would you take to create it?  What would the brand need to become established and successful?

A unique, engaging name?  A simple iconic logo?  A clearly articulated persona?  A compelling value proposition?  A sense of mystery?  A sense of community?  How about the ability to immerse customers in an enthralling experience?

All of these elements are important and valid.  But there’s an important item missing from the list.  How about an enemy?  That’s right an enemy.  Every brand needs an enemy.

Pepsi, Coke & 7Up

Coke needs Pepsi.  Pepsi needs Coke.  7Up needs both Pepsi and Coke.  Dr. Pepper needs Pepsi, Coke, 7Up and every other soft drink.

The Red Sox need the Yankees.  The Oilers need the Flames.  The Longhorns need the Aggies.

Bush & Obama

In the 2008 presidential election, Barack Obama needed the record of George W. Bush.  In the 2010 mid-term election, the Republicans needed the record of Barack Obama.

Teen-focused products need out of touch parents.

In sports, politics and branding, having the right enemy makes a big difference.

Do You Like the Enemy Idea?

How do you feel about this enemy concept?  Are you on board with the idea?  Or does the notion strike you as old school, unenlightened and barbaric?

Don’t we live in a more genteel, intelligent, sophisticated age that has advanced beyond binary paradigms of conflict?  Isn’t it a small world after all?

If your brand is committed to making people feel good, this enemy talk might seem out of character.  But don’t shrink away from the idea too quickly.  If you brand story doesn’t have an enemy, you’ll likely struggle to engage customers in your message.

The Disney Example

Consider the example of Disney, one of the world’s highest profile feel good brands.  If you distill Disney down to its essence, the company’s core competency is storytelling.  The company earns billions every year by tapping into our innate fascination with stories.

Brand Storytelling

Disney excels at storytelling because in many cases, the story is the product the company is selling.  But even if you’re not selling a story, you’ll do the best job of selling if you use great storytelling.  And that’s why every brand needs an enemy – to build a great story.

Think about the classic Disney films.  Each one features a foreboding enemy.

Sweet Snow White was opposed by the wicked witch.  Peter Pan was taunted by Captain Hook.  Cinderella had to overcome the domination of her evil stepmother.  The 101 Dalmatians were hounded by Cruella De Vil.  In the Jungle Book, Mowgli faced the constant threat of being Shere Khan’s next meal.

Why All the Enemies?

Why would a feel good company like Disney devote so much attention to enemies?  Great storytelling demands it.

Without an enemy, there is no story.  Life is comfortable, but dull.  The audience doesn’t care.  Theatre goers don’t pay to be bored.

Enemies make stories interesting.  They raise the stakes.  They introduce risk and intrigue. Once an enemy appears, we’re no longer sure how things will turn out.

Triggering Emotions

Enemies trigger emotions.  When viewers are first introduced to Snow White, they may like her.  But when she is threatened by the wicked witch, like turns to love.  Viewers become emotionally engaged.  They feel fearful for Snow White and angry at the wicked witch.

This is an important lesson for brands.  Great brands connect with customers at the emotional level.  If your company doesn’t create an emotional connection, you don’t have a brand, you’re positioned as a commodity.  Enemies can help create the emotional attachment that every brand needs.

Discovery & Character Development

Enemies enable discovery.  The contrast between the hero and the enemy helps audiences grasp the hero’s true nature.  Only against the backdrop of darkness do we come to appreciate the qualities of light.

Enemies play an essential role in character development.  Only Bambi’s struggle with the hunters, the hunting dogs, and the forest fire allowed him to take his place as the new Prince of the Forest.

Unexpected Allegiances

Enemies also create unexpected allegiances.  In Pirates of the Caribbean, Jack Sparrow, Will Turner and Elizabeth Swann seemed the most unlikely of cohorts until the attack of Captain Barbossa and the cursed crew of the Black Pearl.  Then the trio became steadfast allies.

Customers will have a strong attachment to your brand if your enemy is their enemy.

What Enemy Should You Choose?

So if every brand needs an enemy, who should your enemy be?  Does it need to be your direct competitor?  It depends on your market position.

If you’re the underdog in a David and Goliath struggle and you offer some unique benefits, maybe Goliath should be your enemy.  You might be able to get customers to reconsider their Goliath allegiance and steal some market share.

If you’re locked in a two-way, head-to-head battle with another supplier, where customers have to choose one or the other, it seems to be a natural choice to make that competitor the enemy.  This approach works well in sports rivalries and political battles.

It was also the rationale behind the Pepsi Taste Test.  The side-by-side comparison got cola drinkers to stop and think about which soda actually tasted better.  The drawback to the campaign however, was every commercial gave Coke a piece of the spotlight.  It also made Pepsi quite Coke-focused.

If you make your direct competitor “The Enemy” you might end up putting more energy into battling the opposition than telling customers what you can do for them.

Should Your Enemy Be a Competitor?

Your marketing message certainly needs to differentiate you vis-à-vis alternatives, but the competitor doesn’t have to be “The Enemy.”  You have other options.

The enemy could be what your competitor stands for.  In “1984,” the iconic Super Bowl commercial launching the Macintosh, Apple didn’t take on the IBM PC directly, but a far more menacing foe, the totalitarian group think it represented.

The enemy could be a concept.  Rather than go head to head against another actual car company, Subaru invented Mediocrity.  With Mediocrity as its enemy, Subaru positions itself as the champion of innovation, without drawing attention to an actual competitor.

What Plagues Your Customers?

Perhaps the best choice of enemy is what plagues your customers.

Maybe your enemy should be the poor sales results, paltry profits or lagging morale your customers may be suffering from.  Advanta Design’s enemies include the high manufacturing costs, low demand and slim profit margins clients will face if they take a product to market with generic, off the shelf parts instead of opting for a custom design.

If you can weave a convincing tale that positions your company as the hero that triumphs over the enemy that is attacking your customers, you’ll capture their attention and likely win the business.

What dragons are your customers battling?  If you have dragon-slaying capabilities, you may have found the enemy you’re looking for

Branding Lessons From The Ranch – Part 1

As is fitting for a branding expert, I live on a ranch.  Or at least it used to be a ranch.  Up until a half dozen years ago the ridge overlooking the Elbow River Valley was home to a herd of 250 Herefords.

Today the former rangeland is a thriving subdivision of jewel box bungalows and two storey walkouts surrounded by Kentucky Bluegrass lawns.

The cattle have left the land, but if you think back to the days of the ranch, there are some valuable branding lessons to ponder and profit from.

Branders in the marketplace can learn a lot from branders on the ranch.

A Brand Is A Declaration of Ownership

First and foremost, cattle branding is a declaration of ownership.  Singeing a distinctive mark into the backside of a calf permanently proclaims who it belongs to.

In the days of the old west, owners of branded cattle could confidently allow their herds to roam the open range knowing they would be able to identify their animals at round up time.

In the marketing world a brand is routinely used to identify the manufacturer.  A swoosh on the side of a tennis shoe announces the runner was made by Nike.  A three pointed star in a circle signifies the car is a Mercedes.

Own A Set Of Ideas

But the ownership lesson of branding goes much deeper than simply stamping your logo on the products you make.  Branding offers the sales-boosting possibility of owning a set of ideas.

Back when the first wave of Baby Boomers entered their cavity-prone years, Proctor & Gamble added fluoride to Crest toothpaste and transformed dental health forever.

Crest TV commercials featured an excited grade school child emerging from the dentist’s chair proclaiming “Look Mom, no cavities!”  P&G used the ads to brand Crest as the cavity prevention toothpaste.  By owning the concept of cavity prevention, Crest outsold every other toothpaste on the market.

What set of ideas does your company need to own to move to the top of the market?

A Brand Must Be Distinct

In the ranching world brands must be distinct.  A lack of distinctiveness breeds trouble.  If two adjacent ranches have similar brands a nasty feud is sure to follow.  The same holds true in marketing.

Trademark disputes are becoming ever more common.  Exxon and Kellogg’s have squared off in court over the use of tiger cartoon characters.  Exxon puts a tiger in your tank, while Kellogg’s uses Tony the Tiger to pitch Sugar Frosted Flakes.  Apple, the Beatles’ record label and Apple, the maker of the Mac computer and the iPod, have a long standing dispute over the use of the word Apple in music related services.

You’ll stay out of trouble if you select company and product names, logos and taglines that are hard to confuse with others.  However, there’s more at stake in brand distinctiveness than just reducing the risk of a legal battle.

If You Don’t Stand Out, You Compete On Price

If a product doesn’t stand out from its competitors, if it looks like other products and makes similar claims as other products, then the product is not a brand, it is a commodity that will always be relegated to competing on price.

Think About The iPod

Products that present a distinct message and personality, on the other hand, command higher prices and win a larger share of the market.  Think about the iPod.  Like all other MP3 players the iPod allows you to carry around hundreds of songs in your pocket.  But the iPod is different.  It has a one of a kind style and a hip personality that has captivated millions.  Devotees see the iPod, not as a music playback device, but as an extension of their own personalities.

The iPod dominates the market, especially in the hard drive category where it has commanded a market share of greater than 80%.  And the people buying iPods pay a hefty premium.  iPods typically cost 50-70% more than models with similar song capacity from other manufacturers.

How About Your Company?

How distinctive are the essential identifiers of your brand?  Take a look at the names you use to label your company, products and services.  Take a look at your logo, your tagline and marketing messages.  Then take a look at your competitors.  If the essential identifiers of your brand aren’t distinctly different, you have a problem.

Maybe you once led the market and your competitors have caught up or have copied you.  Cavity prevention was a key differentiating factor for Crest in the 50’s and 60’s.  Today cavity prevention is common to every toothpaste.

If your brand has lost its distinctiveness, it’s time to blaze a new trail.  Don’t tumble into the mire of commodity status.

Branding Is A Long Term Decision

On the ranch, branding has life long implications.  Once branded, the calf will bear the mark for the rest of its life.

The Memory Of An Elephant

In the marketing world, branding isn’t necessarily permanent, but it is long term.  Once you get known for a certain product, service or attribute, the reputation will stick for years, maybe even decades.  The marketplace has the memory of an elephant.

Make sure that you choose brand level messages wisely.  Cultivate a reputation with customers that will stand the test of time.  Make a clear distinction between enduring brand defining values and tactical responses to current market dynamics.

Back in the late 90’s I encountered a number of companies that were adamant the official name of their fledgling organizations had to end in .com.  Most of those companies vanished when the bubble burst.  They made the mistake of tying their identity to a passing fad.

Getting It Right For Decades

There is also a valuable upside to the long term nature of branding.  When you hit the mark with the right company name, product title or tagline, you can run with it for a long time.  The investments you make in professional branding services can keep paying off for decades.

P&G has been selling soap under the Ivory name for more than 125 years.  Nike is still using the Just Do It tagline, which was first launched in 1985.  One of the longest enduring taglines still in use is the familiar slogan for Maxwell House coffee.  Maxwell House has been telling coffee drinkers it is “Good to the Last Drop” since 1915.

Branding in the marketplace is a lot like branding on the ranch.  But be careful how many cattle lessons you take into the marketplace.  In part 2 of Branding Lessons From The Ranch, I’ll explore the ways that branding a business is not like branding a cow.