Tesco, with all its money and marketing clout, couldn't make a go of it with its Fresh & Easy Neighborhood Market stores. During the recession, consumers didn't abandon buying espresso beverages from Starbucks in favor of brewing canned coffee at home. China's Shuanghui International is muscling its way into U.S. and global market share through the acquisition of Smithfield, the world's largest pork processor. Trader Joe's engenders cult-like status among consumers and carves out a unique retail niche in the marketplace.
What is the "it" that allows a company to thrive in a downturn economy? What is the "it" missing from the marketing equation spelling the devaluation and eventual sale of a retail chain? What does a company hope to gain by "buying" its way into and across the marketplace? Why do consumers eyes light up when they talk about their favorite retailer or brand?
What's at work here? Different strategies for different folks.
The above are classic examples of brains vs. brawn at work in the marketplace. The "brawn" approach is when companies try to emulate the success of others through acquisition, line extension, knockoff products, marketing, or low pricing. This is what's known as marketing to a category or commodity.
In sharp contrast, the "brains" approach is taken by those companies that recognize that the key to success is following the consumer. These innovative and visionary companies know that the marketplace is consumer driven. They seek to be culturally relevant, and thus they market to cultural movements.
This is why one of the great temptations within the discipline of marketing lies in the inclination to reduce cultural shifts or movements into a rationalized sum of parts typically known as a category or target market.
This frequently occurs when culturally savvy brands that have tapped into consumer aspirations demonstrate market opportunities (for example, fresh-food experiences, natural and organic products, or gourmet coffee) and in so doing forge an entry point for brands with brawn, which nearly always bring with them a near-total disregard for culture and changing consumers.
Examples of cultural marketers are Whole Foods, Trader Joe's, Starbucks, Chipotle, Panera, Muir Glen, and Kashi. These brands have become iconic leaders in creating brand experiences in step with consumer aspirations. Competitors that enter markets forged by such brands that typically are late to the party try to muscle their way into emerging markets, hoping to build market share through imitation. At their roots, cultural marketers are authentic: Their narratives are grounded in real-life stories that resonate with consumers. Brawn marketers contrive a narrative and rely on advertising to buy the business. Brawn marketers rarely succeed in developing anything but a value proposition, in spite of their best intentions, mainly because their core business model typically steeped in legacy propositions and outdated positioning in the minds of consumers does not foster the creation of dynamic experiences reflective of consumer culture as it evolves in real time.