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The Benefits of Counter-Branding

When your business category is dominated by a single brand and all the other brands put together--yours included--don't match up, it's time to create a counter-brand.

Counter-branding, or business judo, is rare and dangerous. But when you're overwhelmingly dominated in your market niche, what have you got to lose?

Prior to the creation of their "Uncola" counter-brand in 1967, 7-Up had survived for 38 years as a lemon-lime soft drink with the slogan, "You Like It. It Likes You."

Yippee, Skippy, call the press. A soft drink likes me.

As in the art of judo, the secret of counter-branding is to use the weight and momentum of your opponent to your own advantage. In other words, hook your trailer to their truck and let them pull you along in their wake!

Think this may be a strategy that could work for you? Here are the steps you'll need to take to create a counter-brand:

1. Make a list of the attributes of the master brand. In the case of 7-Up, the master brand was "Cola: sweet, rich, brown." Everything else was either a fruit flavor or root beer, and all of those put together were relatively insignificant. "Cola" overwhelming dominated the mental category of "soft drinks."

2. Create a brand with precisely the opposite attributes of the master brand. To accomplish this, 7-Up gave up their lemon-lime description and became "the Uncola: tart, crisp, clear."

3. Without using the brand name of your competitor, refer to yourself as the direct opposite of the master brand. 7-Up didn't become "UnCoke" or "UnPepsi," as that would have been illegal, a violation of the Lanham Act. But when you're up against an overwhelming competitor, you don't need to name them. Everyone knows who they are.

Let's look at a current example: Starbucks. Notice how I didn't have to name the category? All I had to say was "Starbucks," and you knew we were talking about coffee. That's category dominance.

In the February 2005 issue of QSR magazine, Marilyn Odesser-Torpey writes about coffee wars, opening with the question, "Starbucks will certainly remain top dog among coffee purveyors, but who is next in line?" A little later, we read, "Many of the competitors in the coffee segment are Starbucks look-alikes; if you take the store's signage down, it would be hard to tell the difference."

Traditional wisdom tells us to 1) study the leader, 2) figure out what they're doing right and 3) try to beat them at their own game. This strategy can actually work when the leader hasn't yet progressed beyond the formative stages, but when overwhelming dominance has already been achieved, as is the case with Starbucks, such mimicry is the recipe for disaster. Are all competitive coffee houses forever doomed to occupy the sad "me too" position in the shadow of mighty Starbucks? Yes, until one of them launches a counter-brand.

To determine what a Starbucks counter-brand would look like, we must first break Starbucks down into its basic brand elements:
1. Atmosphere. It's quiet and serene, a retreat, a vacation, like visiting the library. Bring your laptop and stay awhile. They've got wi-fi.
2. Color scheme. It's muted with warm colors. Every tone has black added to it.
3. Auditory signature. It's the music of the rainforest, soft and melodious.
4. Lighting. It's subdued and shadowy, perfect for candles or a fireplace.
5. Pace. It's slow and relaxed. The overall feeling is, this is going to take awhile, but that's part of why you're here.
6. Product names. They're distinctly foreign and sophisticated. Sizes include "grande" and "venti." (No matter how you pronounce these, the "barista" will correct you. It's part of the whole Starbucks "wine bar without the alcohol" experience.)

Counter-brands succeed by becoming the yin to the master brand's yang, the north to their south, the equal-but-opposite "other" that neatly occupies the empty spot that had previously been in the customer's mind.

Here's what a Starbuck's counter-brand would look like:
1. Atmosphere. It would be energetic and enthusiastic. Think running shoes instead of bedroom slippers. Leave the car running because we won't be here long.
2. Color scheme. It would be bright with primary colors such as those found in athletic uniforms, against a background of white or off-white.
3. Auditory signature. It would be anything with a driving beat, faster than a resting heart rate. Dance music.
4. Lighting. It would be dazzling, like in a sports arena.
5. Pace. It would driven by the music, on the move. Caffeine!!!
6. Product names. They would be straightforward and plain, descriptive rather than pretentious.

With a counter-brand like this, here's how one of their radio ad might go:

"Most people think to get a fast cup of coffee you have to settle for fast-food coffee--or worse, convenience store coffee. And to get a good cup of coffee, you have to stand in line for 20 minutes at some snooty coffeehouse where things can't just be medium and large but have to be 'grande' and 'venti.' At JoToGo, we serve really good coffee, really fast. We're the original drive-thru espresso bar serving all your favorite premium coffee drinks at lightning speed. So when you're on the go, get a JoToGo. No snooty attitude here--just fabulous coffee fast.

No matter how big a brand might be in the public's mind, there's always an open spot for the exact opposite. When the circumstances call for it, be that opposite. Create a counter-brand.

Roy Williams is the founder and president of international ad agency Wizard of Ads. Roy is also the author of numerous books on improving your advertising efforts, including The Wizard of Ads and Secret Formulas of the Wizard of Ads.

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