Define and rule

In an overcrowded market getting your product noticed is difficult. Simon Sholl and Philip Lawder cut through the hype to define the qualities of a premium brand. Philip Lawder is planning director and Simon Sholl strategic planning manager at Design Brid

Designers know intuitively when they have been given a clear brief, and are equally aware of that uncomfortable feeling when the brief does not break through to confident clarity. And as marketers and their consultancies struggle to differentiate their brands on today’s crowded supermarket shelves, many words in the marketing vocabulary have become as confusing as the products themselves. Words such as “added-value”, “innovation” and “premium” have become debased – so tired, dog-eared and over-used that they have either lost their meaning or mean different things to different people. As a result, they confuse instead of enlighten, and generalise where they ought to define.

If marketers themselves are confused, how does that leave the consumer in Tesco who is trying to choose between their brands?

We know, of course, that in today’s market it’s “differentiate or die”, and that it is the job of marketing teams and their consultancies to create a point of difference for their brand that brings genuine value and real meaning to consumers. But in the effort to do this, many fall into the premium trap. The logic goes: “I must generate volume and profit; therefore I must ‘add value’ to it; therefore it needs to ‘have premium-ness’.”

One problem is that this thought-process goes on in environments miles away from the point of purchase – geographically and culturally. “Premium values” are meaningless unless we can place ourselves in the shopper’s shoes and understand what premium means to them – why they pay over the odds for some products and not for others, and what makes them do so. Another is learning how to win consumers’ hearts and minds when we’re using alien words – words such as premium, which consumers themselves rarely use – to describe the special, significant relationship we want them to have with our brands.

And there’s more. All too often, brand-owners give brands a premium positioning which is simply inappropriate. Brands and products really have to deliver in the late Nineties, when every offer seemingly has dozens of rivals. But deliver what? Second-guessing this can be a dangerous, expensive, even fatal mistake, especially in categories where loyalty and repeat purchase are the key to success.

We must understand who we are trying to convince, how our offers will be interpreted, and what aspect of the brand will make us believable. This means being prepared to invest in brands, and in the product development and raw materials that give those brands the right to be considered by today’s consumer. Because premiumness is about the integration of promise and delivery; raising the buying and using experience to a level where consumers become closely involved with their brands and see them as statements about themselves – almost as a way of defining themselves.

We have to create and express the product and emotional values that justify that special relationship, and those higher prices – not just through design, but across the whole communications mix. It is as simple – and as difficult – as that. In today’s marketing world, where many brands are represented by random bundles of often vague values and promises, it is hard to break through to a powerful statement of premium value. But getting it right brings enormous brand advantage, with real commercial benefits in terms of return on investment, profitability and – with long-term loyalty and repeat purchase – potential for savings on marketing support. Premium brands often sell themselves.

Nurofen, the analgesic, is a brand that enjoys this special relationship with the consumer. Although it is on one level no more than a branded Ibuprofen, it has a consumer base that “buys in” to Nurofen values time after time – and at a premium of 100 per cent above the standard BP Ibuprofen. Many people believe that it is more effective than its generic counterpart, thanks to the premium brand values – including its status as “first in to the market” – that it enjoys. That confidence is carried through to the packaging, where a strong and distinctive brand name and icon is supplemented by textural complexity (embossing and so on) and by the pre-emptive claim “A breakthrough in pain relief”. The leaflet – absent in the generic – reinforces the brand’s character as leader and definer of the sector. Nurofen is a brand with which consumers can have a strong and genuine relationship.

Two new, contrasting premium brands are Kilkenny and the unsuccessful premium lager Enigma, both from Guinness. Why has Enigma failed where Kilkenny has succeeded? Perhaps because Enigma has failed to construct the “special relationship” with the target consumer. With no true product values or graspable brand values, it failed to become part of the consumer’s life and repertoire; it failed in the “brand as expression of self” test. As a quintessential lager, it was unable to benefit from the rich, but utterly different, values of Guinness.

Kilkenny, on the other hand, has been imbued with a seemingly naturally-occurring set of Irish values which are both product-relevant (the colour, taste, experience) and which provide powerful emotive triggers (a return to an ideal world of simplicity and innocence) capable of building into a strong relationship with the consumer. And, of course, they feed from and back into the parent brand values.

The can designs seem to bear this out. While Kilkenny, with its Irish, Smithwick-like heritage intact, promises an authentic experience (“Brewed at Ireland’s Oldest Brewery”), the Enigma can looks like what it is – a designed lager in a designer can, with insufficient product cues for today’s premium packaged lagers market.

A redefinition of marketing terms is long overdue – and premiumness, being at the heart of virtually all brands’ commercial survival, should head the list. Words such as premium need to be unpicked to understand the special relationship between consumer and brand that lies at the heart of premium offers, to understand what marketers have to deliver – emotionally and materially – and define the actions that will lead to genuinely premium brands.

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