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Contrarian Brand Strategy: Could it pay to zig when others zag?

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Warren Buffett, the celebrated investor whose name is synonymous with contrarian investing once said that you should be “fearful when others are greedy and greedy when others are fearful.” Picture a young “sage of Omaha” attending a packed lecture at Columbia Business School with dozens of eager future analysts and brokers.  Wearing his trademark knowing smile, Warren is no longer paying attention like the others. He has found his true calling: marketing. Fast forward 70 odd years. Another company re-org at the office. You wave your director goodbye and it is Warren Buffet that is walking through the door to head up your marketing department. Hold that thought.

If you asked seasoned marketers about what is keeping them awake at night, chances are that an over-abundance of choice and a lack of differentiation in their category would rank high in the order of threats to their brand. Since everyone that competes with you is following the same trends, it is likely that you will all end up drowned into that proverbial sea of sameness. Or for a more fitting analogy, your brand is running in the same direction that all the other lemmings… Left turn? Right turn? Up? Down? Let’s go with the flow and hope it does not lead to a cliff edge. 

What would happen if you purposely went into the opposite direction than everyone else? As Warren Buffet would quickly remind you: Being a contrarian pays-off. We are not talking about becoming a laggard, blindsided to a changing world but adopting a challenger mindset to tackle the issue of brand differentiation, by making a conscious, well-informed decision to follow a contrarian brand strategy. 

In 2007, the assumption in the publishing world was that print was dead. A new online world beckoned. Whether it would be free-for-all or a walled-garden did not matter. The future was digital-only and we were certain that no one wanted ink stains on their fingers ever again. That’s when Tyler Brulé launched Monocle; an “anti-iPad,” magazine, fully staffed like the good old days and far away from social media temptations. It introduced the pleasure of well-researched long-form articles and original quality photography on 300 gsm paper to a whole new generation of readers. Monocle is now a revered media brand valued at $115 million.

Irish retailer Primark is another brand that decided to remain deaf to the chants of the digital sirens. It stocks premium fashion brands at rock bottom prices. While all retailers are working on their omni-channel strategy, Primark does not sell anything online. This forces women to get out of the house and almost treat shopping like a girls’ day out. It also ensures that it is able to keep to low prices as it doesn’t need to bear shipping cost or handling of customer returns for online orders. Primark is one of the fastest growing foreign retail chains in the US.

And what about Dunkin’? As “woke culture” permeates every brand, championed by its main competitor in coffee, Dunkin’advocates political neutrality: “we don’t want to engage you in political conversation, we want to get you in and out of our store in a matter of seconds.” It is too early to say whether this contrarian stance will pay off but it certainly made Dunkin’ stand out from the rest.

And when every retailer prepares for Black Friday, consumers know that Patagonia will refuse to join in that mass-celebration of extreme consumerism, trading-off millions in extra revenue for a clear brand signal and a clear conscience. 

Obviously, not all trends are worth following. Some will even backfire.  Everlane made its name by being the anti-fast-fashion brand when all retailers were beholden to Zara. Stroke of luck or foresight? At that time, few were willing to account for a consumer backlash about the mountain of waste the industry generates. So how do you choose? What all of the brands mentioned above have in common is a strong understanding of what they stand for and what they are not. This allows them to adopt a clear and consistent point-of-view on the changing world around them. 

When Warren Buffet buys into a company, he focuses on the discrepancy between long-term company value and current stock market trend. Similarly, in the battle for differentiation, marketers could remind themselves of their long-term intrinsic brand values. Pause. Then use these as a filter to embrace or buck prevailing trends, even at the risk of short-term unpopularity. When all lifestyle and sports gear brands talked about performance, pushing your limits and going faster, Spanish shoe brand Campers, a classic challenger brand example reminded us that the world was going too fast. When it comes to market trends, for the sake of your brand, it sometimes pays to walk when everyone runs. 

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