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The right questions

Living up to your customer-value proposition is more important than futile attempts to 'own' it
Daily, obsessive determination to live up to what you promised will get you what you wanted
Helen Edwards

Helen Edwards has twice been voted PPA Business Columnist of the Year. She has a PhD in marketing, an MBA from London Business School and is a partner at Passionbrand.

As soon as marketing teams have created their latest customer-value proposition, they move anxiously on to the next big question: “How can we really own this?”

It’s always that same, unequivocal verb: ‘own’. You can see why; a wary eye on competitors, coupled with a personal stake in the seductive new phraseology, gives way to an instinct to build fences.

The notion of brands ‘owning’ bits of consumer mental space surfaced in the assurgent mid-‘90s. Teams back then would talk boldly of appropriating the most universal human concepts. “Let’s own ‘refreshment”‘, you’d hear in a brainstorm for a small fizzy-drinks brand. Or, “This brand can own ‘escapism’”. I even remember, in a workshop for a coffee brand, the team declaring that they would “own the morning”.

There is, in fact, just one way to ensure commercial ownership of the concept embedded in your value proposition, and that is to craft one so awful that no one else could possibly want it. Declare that you will henceforth own ‘frumpy’, and that piece of mental real-estate is sure to remain safely uncontested.

In the more likely event that your value proposition includes positive notions, such as health, confidence, or refreshment, the chances are that other brands, including some in your category, will verge frustratingly close to it.

Outright ownership is as elusive as it is commercially desirable. So what is the answer? It is to ask a better question. The moment your value proposition is agreed, write it up big, pin it up high, and ask this: “How can we live up to this statement, today, and every day?”

Make this the quotidian question, the one that’s on everyone’s screensaver, on every meeting-room wall. It will not appeal to the more testosterone-driven types on the team, since the focus shifts from world domination to human servitude. Yet, this question will achieve three important things.

First, it serves as a daily reminder that branding is more about what you do than what you say. As such, it will have relevance to everyone in the organisation, at all levels; ‘ownership’, conversely, would bemuse many, or, worse, impart the illusion of ‘job done’.

Second, it takes your focus off the competition and puts it squarely onto the relationship between you and your customers. Sir Terry Leahy attributes Tesco’s rise to brand leadership to the moment he and the team vowed that they would stop reacting to Sainsbury’s and focus instead on realising its own value proposition for customers.

Third, it is the question that can get you closest to achieving what you really wanted all along. The daily, obsessive determination to live up to what you promise will win you, if not ownership of that quality, pride of place as the first brand on the consumer’s mental check-list when it matters.

In this, it is a good marketing example of the central idea in John Kay’s admirable book, Obliquity. He argues that goals are best pursued indirectly. You achieve profit by forgetting about it, and focusing on your higher-order purpose instead; similarly, take the emphasis off ‘owning’ your value proposition, and throw your full endeavour into its delivery.

Simple stuff, really. Sometimes marketing is. It’s about the right motives, the right attitude, and the right questions.

John Kay

John Kay is an economist, academic and author. He also manages to squeeze in a regular column for the Financial Times.

A graduate of Nuffield College, Oxford, he worked as an academic, consultant and director of the Institute for Fiscal Studies. He returned to his alma mater to help set up the Saïd Business School. He quit his role at Saïd in 1999, saying it made him unhappy because of the “impossibility of getting decisions made within Oxford”.

Nuffield College John Kay’s alma mater

Nuffield College John Kay’s alma mater

Obliquity is his 13th book. It was published last year, and has achieved that coveted position in business-book publishing of gaining ‘cross-over’ appeal – extending its popularity beyond the business community to a more general readership.

Obliquity has much that resonates with marketing best practice: the need to have a higher-order ideal and to adapt to context, the dangers of what the author calls spurious rationality, and the support for an iterative, even instinctive, approach to problem-solving.