Learnings from David A. Aaker’s book: Brand Relevance, Making Competitors Irrelevant
Six Ways to Win the Brand War:
Learnings from David A. Aaker’s book Brand Relevance, Making Competitors Irrelevant
By Jonathan Villet
“You do not merely want to be considered the best of the best. You want to be considered the only ones
who do what you do.” - Jerry Garcia
Remarkable success in marketing comes from the relevance of a product category or sub-category to
customers, argues David Aaker in his new book, Brand Relevance, Making Competitors Irrelevant.
The battle is for brand relevance, not brand preference, explains Prof. Aaker. He makes a full court press
of plain-spoken theory and case studies.
Successful companies are excellent at finding and creating a product category as uniquely relevant to
customers. They offer their own brand as the best or only brand within that product category. They are
also good at promoting, protecting, and energizing the relevance of that product category. On the other
hand, companies who fight only for brand preference (“Mine is better than yours!”) tend to lose
relevance to their target audiences.
Since I run an advertising agency, I’m always looking for ways to create gold from raw material,
sometimes even dull and inert material heavy as lead. Brand relevancy is a wonderful alchemy. There’s
magic occurring in the process of marketing science that Aaker describes. He shows how a company can
be transform its efforts and assets with “relevance” into enormous, even monopolistic market share.
Relevance is the “must-have” attraction that makes a category or subcategory successful. Look at the
automotive “compact hybrid” subcategory. Prius defined it. How? The Prius design is distinctive, a
unique badge, because a big part of the “must have” for these green consumers is to publically show
that they are green. They understood what was relevant. Once upon a time there were no SUVs. But
after the sub-category was created twenty years ago, it’s been a “must have” ever since. The field
became crowded. The brand that understands and offers what is most “must have” in SUV desirability (a
combination of stylish exterior, good gas mileage, comfortable interior) to certain types of customers,
gains their preference.
Commodity products, like laundry detergent, often resort to entertainment as their advertising tactic
because they have no relevant differentiation. However by focusing on relevance, there’s another way.
Find out who wants the “must-have” of getting colors more vivid, and position the laundry detergent as
the best at that. The creative options are refreshed.
Defining the “must-have”
“Must-haves” can be disruptive innovations: for example compare the convenience of cloud computing
in Salesforce.com versus software-based ACT! on your hard drive (so quickly do major products fade
away when they lose relevancy.) Sometimes a “must have” is created by gathering offerings together
under one roof: Whole Foods Market combines natural foods, support to local producers, good service
and a community vibe. A “must have” can be identified in a trends: websites as knowledge centers
(versus promotional displays), the green movement as a way of life, or baby boomers who take control
of their personal health. A “must have” can be created with underserved customer segments: Nintendo
went beyond young male gamers, to family-based learning and entertainment with the Wii. It became a
positive experience, leapfrogging parental ambivalence to gaming machines. Provide relevance to
customers with shared interests, for example, an interest in babies. Intimacy and acceptance is relevant
– even in hardware stores where personal advice and popcorn is a welcome experience.
You can frame relevant benefits that are functional, self-expressive, and emotional, as different from
those of competitors.
If your product itself defines a new product or service subcategory, either by innovation or
repositioning, you are excluding competition. The competition is irrelevant because they are not even
considered a part of the category. Even if competitors are in the customer’s consideration set, if
competitors do not focus on marketing their relevancy, they will struggle to be recognized.
So when it comes to your advertising and marketing strategy, do battle for brand relevance before
brand preference! I suggest you work your magic with these six ideas, which I’ve interpreted from Prof.
Six ways to create the alchemy of brand preference and win the marketing battle
1. Be current. Use your antennae to recognize trends ranging from the macroeconomic to those in
pop culture. What makes the trend so desirably relevant? Help your clients to see the underlying
picture, and be ready to research and design new strategy based on your insights.
2. Answer why. Aligning what products and services can offer, to what customers really want, can
answer: Why is something relevant to them? Or, how could it be relevant to them?
3. Customer purpose and aspiration. Mothers want to care for their babies, not buy disposable
diapers. The benefits are care, love and future. In your product or service, what are the
aspirational associations that define the category, and what are the functions that achieve those
4. Creative positioning. Identify one or two priority aspirations that the product will fulfill.
Whether superior to, or at parity with competitors, express your positioning in your advertising.
Choose media channels that will best convey the story, whether a TV campaign or social media,
5. Abolish irrelevancy. Aaker reminds us to think strategically, using relevancy as our guide.
There’s the “sticking with your knitting approach”, that is, being the best within the category
even if trends go against the category. For example, In-and-Out Burger thrives despite the trend
towards healthy eating. There are also repositioning the brand, gaining parity, and introducing
new innovations, so long as they focus on relevancy.
6. Protect or restore relevance. Aaker also reminds us about the tools we all know well for a
relevancy strategy. They include: giving new energy to brands by association with branded
sponsorships, doing good in the world, promotions, publicity events, and finding ways to involve
your customers. Let relevancy be your guide.
Be bold enough to express what matters to the customer. Work your magic! Prof. Aaker has given us not
only a powerful reminder to do just that, but the insights to do it much better.
* * *
Jonathan Villet is President of OneWorld Communications, an advertising agency in San Francisco,
California with affiliate offices in 16 countries. He is a graduate of the Haas School of Business, UC
Berkeley, USA, where David A. Aaker is Professor Emeritus.
Brand Relevance, Making Competitors Irrelevant, by David A. Aaker is published by Jossey-Bass, ISBN