Whitepaper | Robert Davis

Identifying powerful opportunities for brand innovation: Introducing the PJA Gap Finder

New business creation in the US is at a 40-year low, but we all still love talking about the cool startups inventing or radically re-inventing existing business models. Agencies like ours play in a different space – we’re often asked to re-boot brands, not businesses. In our business, the kind of brand stories that get attention usually feature incredibly creative ad and social campaigns. Nothing against cool campaigns, but they’re usually shorter-lived and less truly transformative than radical business innovation.

At PJA, we’re driven by a conviction that marketers need to ask more of their brands. So we think a lot about how a brand strategy can power creativity time after time – in multiple successive campaigns – as well as audience after audience, from customer segments to advocate and partners to employees. We set ourselves up to deliver successfully on this goal by identifying durable brand opportunities, our name for the fertile territory that lies at the intersection of a real marketplace gap with a unique brand asset.

What's so powerful about market gaps? Well, here's an example. The proliferation of digital channels and behaviors, and the radical addressability of users in digital media may seem like a boon to marketers, but they often leave buyers feeling over-marketed to and under-cared about by brands. And the sheer volume of marketing activity clients have to manage, coupled with innovation fatigue, makes it easier than ever for brands to do what they've done before – and that's what we call a rut. "Ruts", "blind spots" and "taboos" are all marketplace gaps that can be exploited to create real advantages for your brand. And that's where our Opportunity Finder comes in.

Open-sourcing our approach to identifying brand opportunities

Since brand opportunities are a great platform for generating innovative brand ideas, we created a repeatable model for developing them. We use it in workshops with our clients, but we’re happy to share, too. What follows is a step-by-step summary of the Brand Opportunity process. If you try it out, I’d love to get your feedback – just tweet me at @heyrobertdavis.

The PJA Brand Gap Finder

The Gap Finder does a couple of things well. First, it's a handy way to assemble and understand the raw materials that can inspire new brand opportunities: marketplace gaps and brand assets. And second, it's a platform for brainstorming breakthrough brand ideas. Read on to learn about our definition of gaps and assets, and to find out how to use the Opportunity Finder.

Step 1: Finding marketplace gaps

Gaps provide ways to focus your brand on viable opportunity spaces in your market. Some of the ways gaps appear are as brands going through the motions, buyers out-pace the offerings in your market (or the other way around, when buyers have to catch up to innovative brands), or when marketers seemingly agree not to talk about key truths that may challenge “business as usual.” Try the following exercises to identify gaps that may create opportunities for your brand.

Gap: Dig into the ruts that trap your competitors and customers

Where do brands spend time and money blindly following category conventions? Here’s an example: As the retirement savings industry transitioned from pension plans to the 401k, fund marketers continued offering vanilla reminders to investors to fund their lives after retirement. While it’s hard to stand out when your advertising sounds like uninspired admonishments to take your vitamins, marketers kept doing it over and over anyway.

Prudential had the idea to plug into the reasons why so many of us don’t save, even when we know we should. The result: starting with the “Blue Dot” commercial, an ongoing series of ads and experiences that seem more like insightful, easy to understand sociology experiments with investors as willing participants. By taking a rut (“Just tell people to save ‘cause it’s good for them”) and turning it into an opportunity, Prudential developed a breakthrough brand strategy.

To walk a mile in the ruts sucking in competitors and customers, assemble a team (it's great to include your client) and consider these questions:

  • What are the tried and true patterns that your competitors tend to fall into? What about your buyers? (Gather key competitor's ads, emails, home pages and landing pages and stick them up on a whiteboard. Note the words, images and claims they each use? Where do they overlap?)
  • Ask clients which brand communication tasks make them feel like they're pushing the same old boulder up the same hill every day, without ever getting to the top?
  • Ask your customers and prospects what the things are they assume will never change about your category? About your brand?

Gap: Explore your taboos

Consider this list of companies: Northern Safety, Cincinnati Fan, Air King Limited, and Big Ass Fans. Which of these brands sounds like they’re not paying attention to the things you’re “not supposed to do” in the industrial fan category?

In most markets there is a sizable minority of “change agent” buyers searching for better alternatives to the status quo. We call them "crazies." While it may not be your brand they're crazy about, they are crazy about the possibilities inherent in your category. What's more, they're open to change. In industrial fans, the “Big Ass Fans” brand is purpose-built for them. And while The Big Ass name is the most immediately visible sign of a company doing things differently, it's also just one element of a carefully crafted strategy for uniquely branded storytelling based on breaking taboos in a category used to playing it safe.

More taboos? Until Geico came along, insurance marketers seemed to agree that to be credible, insurance advertising had to be stolid, serious, and safe.

To uncover opportunities concealed by taboos, consider these questions:

  • What have you always wanted to say in your marketing communications, but your legal department wouldn’t let you?
  • What do your "core crazies" – your most passionate buyers – love about you? What would happen if you turned one or more of those things up to 11?
  • What would the “change agent” category crazies love to hear from a brand in your category, but think they probably never will?

Gap: Find your marketing blind spots

Blind spots are things that are true, but for some reason marketers or buyers just don't see them. Some blind spots are the result of marketers trusting internal “expertise” too much, and not doing the work to understand and respond to buyer’s evolving needs and behaviors. For example, when Walgreen’s talked with consumers about their adoption of mobile banking apps, they found that functionality like mobile banking deposits had reset their expectations across categories, including what they wanted from pharmacy apps.

Walgreen’s Pharmacy closed the gap with their customers with app functionality that lets consumers snap a picture of a prescription and get it filled – and in doing so, exposed a blind spot in competitor CVS Health’s digital capabilities.

Sometimes buyers have blind spots of their own; a common example is when buyer behavior hasn’t kept pace with the pace of innovation in your category. Salesforce is a great example: Salesforce CEO Mark Benioff worked hard with his marketing team to find a simple campaign that could help them make their “End of software” mission relevant and motivating to buyers who only knew how to buy on-premise software. Their “No Software” ad campaign resonated with buyers who were frustrated with the existing software model but who didn't know what to do about it. And we know how that turned out.

To uncover blind spots your competitors might not see, ask questions like:

  • How are commercial or social forces reshaping buyer expectations in ways that could affect your category or brand?
  • How are the subset of “change agent” category crazies different from the rest of your prospects?
  • What elements of the category status quo are most disappointing to your buyer?
  • How can our solution’s “facts” (speed, quality, price) ladder up to promises that are meaningful to the buyer because they deliver on their functional and emotional needs?
  • And keep in mind, buyers go through much of their purchase process without consulting your brand. How can you find new ways to engage them and address the needs you might not know about – and they may never ask you to help them with?

Step 2: Inventory your brand assets

Think of assets as your own brand of fuel to power ideas that take advantage of marketplace gaps. Brand origin stories, structural advantages, and planned futures all represent potent sources of this fuel. Here are three suggestions for ways to get in touch with your brand’s key assets.

Asset: Revisit your brand’s backstory

Revisiting your brand origins shouldn’t be an exercise in business nostalgia. Focus on re-examining the truths that drove the brand’s original points of uniqueness, and look closely at them for new ways to drive differentiation.

To connect more deeply with their audience while staying true to their brand, Converse drew inspiration from the subgroup of highly-creative young people who had made the brand successful in the 1950’s. By building on this insight, along with their existing brand value of “blank canvas,” the team at Converse hit on the idea for Rubber Tracks Studio: a state of the art recording studio, staffed with industry pros and available to young musicians – all for free.

To find actionable truths in your brand’s backstory, ask questions such as

  • What’s interesting or unique about the customers who helped you build your business at key moments in your journey?
  • When your brand was young and fresh, what change did it set out to create in the world?
  • What unplanned events changed the course of your brand’s history?

Asset: Mine your unfair advantages

Some brand owners are able to build structural advantages that are difficult to duplicate. For example, American Express gets “multiple bites from the apple” in their credit business when they charge consumers an annual fee to carry a card, and then command a transaction fee on purchase from retailers. Amex leveraged their “unfair advantage” to make the most of a differentiating brand strategy: Small Business Saturday, an idea that successfully engaged consumers and small business owners in a compelling social movement.

When the POTUS tweets your brand campaign and Congress makes it an official day on the national calendar, you’ll know you’ve got an idea that is building an advantage for your brand – and driving your competitors nuts.

To find elements of your brand’s unfair advantage that can power unique marketing opportunities, consider these questions:

  • What elements of your business model and practices do your competitors struggle to duplicate?
  • How does your business uniquely connect different groups of constituents?
  • What elements of your solution or offering would customers miss most if your brand disappeared overnight? Why?

Asset: Start making your “best future” come true

Of all the potential ways your category could evolve, there are probably one or two that would be best for your business. But sometimes a company’s boldest envisioned future is buried in a corporate vision statement, never making it out of the boardroom and into the market as an engaging story.

Corning’s first “A Day Made of Glass” video was a compelling cinematic vision of a future when their glass improves many facets of consumer’s lives. The original video has 25,000,000 views, and has been extended with a number of followup videos. Smart Corning marketers also pushed the message out as a consistent umbrella for Corning’s most innovative products and solutions.

PJA partnered with Red Hat to create the “Enterprisers Project” – a different take on communicating a particular vision for the future. Red Hat’s senior leadership saw a future in which CIOs focus most on building business value, rather than rote IT execution. What’s more, they knew that future CIOs would value technologies built to deliver iterative improvement, flexibility and interoperability – the pillars of Red Hat’s open source offerings. Red Hat’s Enterprisers Project is making this “best future” come true by connecting aspirational CIOs with their most innovative, highest-performing peers to learn how to make become true business leaders. As a result, Red Hat is organically nurturing “change agent” crazies for their enterprise software solutions.

To uncover market opportunities based on your brand’s best “future,” consider questions like these:

  • What vision of a future at least five years out can your brand help to come true?
  • At several points in time between now and this ideal future, how do you see your brand intersecting with evolving market needs, attitudes or behaviors?
  • How could your category evolve in ways that would benefit your brand and your future buyers?

Next installment: Building brand opportunity statements

To find the best opportunities for your brand, you'll need to capture them in a clear, easy to share statement. That means matching up gaps you’ve identified with brand assets that point toward ownable ideas.

We'll let you know when the next post in this series is available. In the meantime, check out these posts for more ideas about expecting – and getting – more from your brand:

Don't settle for marketing: start a movement

Why today's companies must position – and brand – for change

After the big brand presentation, what's next?