Though I didn’t hold this title at my last job, I was effectively the Chief Stereotyping Officer. My job was to create stereotypes about our company and about our competitors. Like all stereotypes, the ones I created served mainly to simplify reality. Reality is complex. I wanted to simplify beliefs, values, and choices. And I wanted to tilt the scales in our favor.
My real title, of course, was Chief Marketing Officer. I created brands. And brands are nothing more than manufactured stereotypes.
The word “stereotype” has acquired negative connotations over the years. We admonish people not to stereotype. But the propensity to stereotype is innate. I call it a factory-installed bias.
In truth, we all stereotype. And we do it for very good reasons. Primarily, we stereotype to simplify the world around us. If one Volvo is safe, we may be justified in assuming that all Volvos are safe. If we had to test every Volvo to determine if it were safe or not, we might never reach a decision.
To stereotype simply means that we examine one item in a category – or one individual in a group – and reach conclusions about it. We then project those conclusions on to all members of the group.
We do this instinctively. It’s merely a simplifying assumption. And in many cases, we’re right. Most Volvos probably are safe. And that’s the purpose of branding – to convince you that all products from a particular company have common characteristics.
While the propensity to stereotype is innate, what we stereotype is based on culture and experience. Stereotypes become pernicious when they’re about people. When we stereotype gender, it becomes sexism. When we stereotype race or ethnicity, it becomes racism or ethnic prejudice. When we stereotype religions, it can lead to apocalyptic religious wars.
Stereotypes can also change over time. When I was a kid, products that were labeled “Made In Japan” were assumed to be poor quality. Now the opposite is true. Similarly, when I was young, people talked about “women drivers” as if they all behaved the same way. I don’t hear that kind of talk today so perhaps this is a stereotype that has disappeared.
Of course, most branding campaigns are not about people but about products or services. We marketers are simply taking advantage of an innate human behavior. People want to generalize about their experiences. We’d like to help you do that. We simply want to steer those generalizations in a particular direction.
People sometimes suggest that stereotyping is the sign of a lazy mind. Actually, it’s the sign a human mind. We should recognize that it’s part of who we are. At the same time, we should recognize that stereotyping people is degrading, erroneous, and just plain wrong.
Branding works because it aims directly at human nature. It’s a form of stereotyping that benefits both consumers and vendors. For consumers, it simplifies choices. For vendors, it creates strong reputations. So, let’s use stereotyping for what it’s good for and not for what it’s bad for. And, if you need a Chief Stereotyping Officer, I’m your man.
As you think about branding, it’s useful to think about your goods (products or services) in one of three categories: search goods, experience goods, or credence goods.
Search goods are products whose “fitness” you can judge simply by looking at them. You can look at (and perhaps feel) an apple to tell whether it’s ripe and fit for purchase. With search goods, you can assess both the price and the value before you purchase it. Is it sturdy enough? Ripe enough? The right size? The right color? The right price?
Search goods typically are products rather than services and they’re more likely to attract price competition and substitution. If you can evaluate products simply by looking at them, you can fairly easily decide if you want to substitute one for another.
If you’re the price leader in a search good category, you’ll probably want to brand around your pricing. If you’re not the price leader, you’ll want to brand around other attributes, including secondary attributes. You may want to brand around the channel (“convenient, easy-to-find”) or the source (“a manufacturer you can trust”), longevity (“since 1916”) or geography (“Made in Boulder by Boulderians”). Packaging is also an important element in branding a search good. You want the packaging to stand out during the search.
Experience goods need to be experienced to understand how well they fit your needs. A bottle of wine is a good example – you can’t tell how good it is just by looking at it. You can identify the price but not the value. With an experience good — much more than a search good — you may assume that the price indicates the value.
You can only ascertain the value by consuming (experiencing) the product which, of course, happens well after the purchase decision. For this reason, experience goods typically have less price competition and elasticity. Indeed, a low price may be a subtle signal that there is something wrong with the product or service.
Branding an experience good often depends on reputation and word-of-mouth. People who have already consumed the product can provide useful testimony to those who are considering the purchase. This only works, of course, if the previous consumers are credible. Longevity may also play a role as potential consumers may assume that a well-established, long-lived brand offers more value than an upstart.
With credence goods, you can’t judge the value even after consuming the product or service. What’s the real value of your college degree? How successful was your hip surgery? Was it worth the price? Would it have been more successful if performed by another surgeon?
There’s no basis for comparison with credence goods. In some ways, they’re faith-based products. You need to trust your supplier. As The Economist points out, the more credulous you are, the more likely you are to be overtreated or overcharged.
In branding a credence good, previous consumers can be important but only up to a point. They can’t accurately judge value either. Let’s say a patient had the same surgery you’re considering and says he had good results with Dr. X. But how would he know if he might have had better results with Dr. Y? There’s a limit to the witness’s credibility.
For this reason, marketers of credence goods often add third-party ratings agencies (or government institutes) into their branding mix. If a neutral board of evaluators gives Dr. X a grade of 95% and Dr. Y a grade of only 94%, that’s a powerful brand differentiator for Dr. X. Note that this is true even if the differences (95% versus 94%) are small or if the rating scale doesn’t really measure what the consumer thinks it does. Most consumers rarely investigate the inner workings of third-party evaluations. A wise consumer evaluates the evaluator.
(I adapted this from Kevin Lane Keller’s excellent textbook, Strategic Brand Management).
As you develop your company’s brand, how do you determine what “personality” you should project? How do you know where your brand fits relative to other brands in the market? I always recommend that you do as much market research as you can. I also recommend that you study the archetypal systems developed by Carol Pearson (whose website is here).
Pearson is a Jungian psychologist more than a marketing maven. She has developed a set of archetypes that help people understand how to use their inner resources to enrich their lives. Fortunately for us marketing types, these archetypes can also be applied to companies and organizations. They can help you understand how you fit into a broader ecosystem and how to convey your message most effectively.
When I worked at Lawson Software, we used the simplified diagram that you see here. The diagram includes 12 basic archetypes with a company to illustrate each one.
The circle helps you understand how the archetypes fit together. For instance, note the word “Order” at the top of the circle and the word “Change” at the bottom. Simply put, the companies on the top half of the circle want to maintain the existing order, the current market structure. By comparison, the companies on the bottom half might be described as “upstarts”. They want to change — or overthrow — the current market structure.
The left and right halves of the circle also have much to tell us. The archetypes on the left side are group-oriented. Those on the right side are more self-focused. The simplest explanation is that those companies on the left of the circle focus primarily on their external constituencies. Those on the right focus more attention on internal processes and procedures.
At Lawson, we quickly decided that we were on the bottom half of the circle. We weren’t the market leaders, we didn’t dominate the segment — we needed to shake things up to find our place in the sun. Similarly, we decided that we were on the left side of the circle. We were market oriented and our mission was to make our customers stronger. In other words, we were externally focused.
So, we were on the lower left segment of the circle. We had three archetypes to choose from: 1) Jester, like Disney; 2) Outlaw, like Virgin; 3) Magician, like Apple. We then proceeded by elimination. We were a B2B company and just didn’t have the magical chops of Apple. Similarly, we weren’t a jester like Disney. Indeed, we were probably too serious.
That left us at “Outlaw”. We never really liked that label but ultimately we decided that’s who we were. (We described ourselves as “disrupters” rather than as “outlaws” but, really, what’s the difference?) To succeed, we needed to break some rules. We needed to be different and shake things up. It helped that we had a plain-spoken and charismatic CEO who was not unlike Richard Branson.
Choosing the outlaw/disrupter path almost immediately led us to use a cartoon character — very different than what you would expect from, say Oracle or SAP. With help from Fiftyeight, a very creative agency in Germany, we developed the Lars Lawson character as well as Sepp (for SAP) and ElCaro (Oracle spelled backwards). We then launched a series of video adventures on YouTube that typically garnered over a million views. (You can see the most popular videos here and here).
Did it work? You betcha. We grew faster than our segment and gained visibility globally. Bottom line: whether you’re a person or a company, it helps to know who you are and where you fit.
You can find Carol Pearson’s books here.