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Building an irreplaceable brand

If there’s one thing we know about today’s market, it’s that bland, blanket products won’t cut it anymore. Why? Because trying not to offend anyone and please everyone will leave you appealing to nobody.

Here’s an example: For years, whenever clients told me they wanted their product or brand to appeal to everyone, I said “you’ll end up with a Ford Mondeo, and who wants one of those?”

Turns out the analogy was spot-on: earlier this year Ford finally announced they’re ceasing production on the lacklustre Mondeo. And if you ask me, this will be far from the last well-meaning product range to fold because it fell short of the impractical ambition to appeal to everyone.

Designing to appeal to everyone means removing all the personality. The fate of the Mondeo illustrates that perfectly: even though Ford managed to create something that ticked many boxes when it came to value, safety and economy, the competition caught up and managed to do similar with products that stir a bit more emotion.

The bottom line is this: by not appealing specifically to someone, your brand becomes a utility chosen purely on cost – the second a lower cost option that meets the same needs pops on the market, you’re done for.

Unless you change your approach, and accept that bland brands are replaceable brands. And that bold brands that are willing to connect directly with a very specific someone – as opposed to anyone and everyone – become features in their customers’ lives for the long-haul.

One: stop designing for the masses

The thing is, consumers are more demanding than ever, and they want to buy into brands that reflect their own personality and values.

This is not exclusive to big purchases like cars and electronics. In the FMCG space, plenty of brands and products have been designed to appeal to a mass market. And in theory it sounds smart – who really needs to feel understood by a cooking sauce brand?

But believe it or not, we do.

It may not feel like it in the moment, when we’re lobbing a jar of pesto into the trolly, but the truth is that consumers are absolutely more likely to make choices based on the story they’re told and how well it matches up to the story they tell about themselves. When a brand reflects a customer’s story back to them, a connection is made and loyalty follows.

Make a meaningful connection

When a brand leans in to the role it plays in a customer’s lifestyle, it can transform from a utility selected based purely on price points into a staple in a consumer’s life. By stirring emotion and embracing story, brave brands make more meaningful connections, and deliver value to the customers who will support them in the long term, becoming irreplaceable components in their lives.

Think Ben & Jerry’s, which relies not only on its clever tone of voice, friendly aesthetic, and bold flavours to connect to consumers, but is a brand famously unafraid to take a political stance – its audience responds to that dedication. And Oatly doesn’t just sell a milk alternative, it champions an alternative lifestyle in its look, feel, and tone of voice. Tyrells, meanwhile, embraces the overlap between middle-class sensibilities, snacky cravings, and the millennial “treat yourself” mentality – their products aren’t for everyone, but they are definitely for an identifiable niche who are willing to be loyal to the product because of the lifestyle it feeds into.

Oatly doesn’t just sell a milk alternative, it champions an alternative lifestyle in its look, feel, and tone of voice

Do one thing well

An irreplaceable brand doesn’t have to be revolutionary, it just has to be very good at what it does and very good at understanding who it does that for.

Take Hiut jeans for example, the UK-based denim brand prides itself on its motto to “do one thing well”. They’re proud to declare that they “make jeans. That’s it.”

The jeans market may be massive, but Hiut’s jeans are no mass-market product. The company uses tone of voice and design to communicate its unique story – one that resonates with the niche of consumers the brand wants to serve. Loyal customers don’t buy Hiut because they need a pair of jeans – they buy into being the kind of person who lives a lifestyle compatible with Hiut’s minimalist personality and commitment to artistry over mass-production.

The one thing Hiut does well, then, isn’t quite as simple as just making jeans. It’s making jeans for people who share the Hiut philosophy – and that’s what makes Hiut jeans irreplaceable to its consumers.

When I launched Stories&Ink under my health & beauty brand house The Others Beauty Co, doing one thing well – and for the right people, was at the top of my mind.

Stories&Ink was created for a very clear mass-niche market: it’s long-term skin-care for people with tattoos. It’s not for everyone. But it’s very clearly for someone: by designing with our very real audience’s lifestyle in mind from day one, we’ve not just created a product, but a story that our audience shares. And we’ve built up a loyal community from doing so.

Think outside of category…

One of the reasons so many brands get stuck on a hamster wheel of being easily replaceable is because they’re playing it safe to sate retailers. Brands have made multiple compromises for retail because the product and packaging design has to do so many things to hit a target retail price point and communicate everything about that brand from the shelf.  And when all the options on the shelf look the same, no one is asking for the brand by name.

The good news is that the booming era of D2C is ushering in a shift in how brands design and communicate their offering. We’ve seen brands like Dollar Shave Club and Simba disrupt their industries, all because they were willing to operate outside traditional category cues to tell a compelling story focused on connecting to their intended audience, instead of fitting in on a shelf with their competitors.

D2C energy company Bulb is the perfect example of a brand that dared to think outside of category and changed the entire conversation around what customers can expect out of their utility service. Using both visual and tonal cues, Bulb drew customers in with differentiation and offered them a truly disruptive service.

When it comes down to it, becoming irreplaceable is all about mindset – if you’re willing to be bold and own the unique story you’re telling, you’ll find your loyal customer base.

And outside of spreadsheets.

One surefire way to create a replaceable brand is cut brand off from the founders and leaders of the business. If you’ve outsourced the entirety of your brand to a brand manager running it off marketing spreadsheets – you’ve put yourself on the fast track to obsolescence.

Organization and implementation are important, of course, and good brand managers make sure those happen. But the presence of passion in the brand comes from the leadership – not the middlemen. And passion is essential to irreplaceable brands. Products can be copied, but passion can’t.

Think of it like this: a brand with passion and truth behind it can make the product irrelevant (in a good way!). Look at a brand like Patagonia – you could ditch the clothes and Patagonia would still be a brand – that’s because it taps into a mindset, a lifestyle, a story bigger than itself.

Tap in.

Ultimately, being an irreplaceable brand comes down to tapping in to passion, internally and externally.

Starbucks CEO Howard Schulz said it best: “If people believe they share values with a company, they will stay loyal to the brand.”

In short, irreplaceable brands are the ones that aren’t afraid to stand for something – whether that’s the mass niche skin care needs of a community, socially-conscious home owners, drivers who want more than the basics from their vehicles, home chefs with high-end taste, and everything in between.

Simon Forster, Founder & Executive Creative Director, Robot Food

In 2009 Simon founded Robot Food, a UK-based independent branding agency that creates successful challenger brands with global reach. With an uncommon blend of creative and commercial vision, Simon leads his team partnering with clients to go beyond the brief, always challenging to deliver effective commercial results. Apart from progressive start-ups, clients include Carlsberg, Innocent, Arla and Pernod Ricard.

Simon Forster
Simon Forster
Simon Forster, Founder, Robot Food. Simon heads this UK-based independent branding agency that creates successful challenger brands with global reach. Apart from progressive start-ups, clients include Carlsberg, Innocent, Arla and Pernod Ricard. He’s also an early investor in and advisor for multiple brands. www.robot-food.com

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