Killing Giants: A Brand Relevance Interpretation

Killing Giants is a provocative book written by Stephen Denny in which he outlines 10 strategies that have worked when small firms took on the giants in their industry – firms with marketing scale, distribution clout, buying power and strong brands. In looking at these strategies, it appeared to me that nearly all had a relevance interpretation. They were reframing a category or creating a new subcategory based on a “must have” that did not exist before, or they were affecting the visibility battle that is part of gaining relevance. Consider the following strategies:

Thin Ice
Fight the giant where its size no longer matters. Boston Beer’s Samuel Adams brand (“not a beginner’s beer”) defined high-quality craft beer, a new subcategory in which Budweiser and the others were not relevant players.

Bring innovations to the market faster than the bureaucratic big guys. Intuit used quantitative and qualitative customer insight information to continuously improve their Quicken and TurboTax products. As a result, they became exemplars and kept refining the subcategory definitions, making the challenge of becoming relevant a moving target.

Winning the Last Three Feet
When Microsoft took control of a major retailer’s advertising, Adobe responded by putting retail demonstrations into the chain’s top 260 stores, thereby turning the Microsoft ad campaign against them. Relevance is about having enough visibility and credibility to be considered. The demonstrators changed the visibility equation.

Fighting Dirty
Crystal Pepsi pioneered a new soda subcategory. Early on, Coke introduced Tab Clear, an apparently comparable product, thereby framing the new subcategory Pepsi was creating as inferior.

Eat the Bug
Go against the conventional wisdom of what a product should be by an extreme innovation.  That is what Vibram did by introducing a FiveFinger running shoe which were ugly but functional for those with knee issues and did define a new category that the big shoe firms assumed away.

Change the Transaction
Zipcar transformed cars from products into services and thus framed a new category.

Polarize on Purpose
The MINI is a tiny car that makes its point by polarizing its image, thereby becoming the exemplar for the new category.

Seize the Microphone
Dominate the visibility dimension of the category, as GoDaddy did with outrageous but extensive advertising.

All the Wood Behind the Arrow(s).
Method created a “green” alternative to cleaning products with a focused effort based around a philosophy that guided — a classic creation of a new subcategory with a host of barriers to competitors including the ingredients, the packaging and the brand.

Show your Teeth
Cott, a private label Canadian bottler successfully took on Coke and Pepsi by providing comparable quality, enlisting retailers to tell the story and capitalizing on their cost advantage.

Big brands are often looked upon with envy. However, their size is also a handicap because they often can’t create or even enter a niche area with growth potential and cannot bring innovations to market quickly. So smaller firms with flexibility, an innovative drive and a lot of guts can establish new categories or subcategories and build barriers so that the big guys are left out (at least until they make an expensive acquisition).

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