Walk the aisles of any store, and you will see brands trying to one-up each other with claims of “bigger,” “better,” “bolder” … what I like to call “-er” statements. Why is it so important for brands to progress to an increasingly superior state? What makes something a clear winner or loser at shelf? Is it enough to state that a brand is “-er”? The quest for authentic superiority and true brand differentiation is complex, indeed.

It’s difficult to keep making a brand better and better. In fact, sometimes iterative improvements such as adding color, scents or flavors — and trumpeting the changes with loud “-er” messages on updated packaging — can pull a brand further away from its core equity. It is important, therefore, to determine the strategic relevance behind brand improvements: Are you just trying to keep up with the competition or are these “-er” moves actually making a difference? Are you really moving your brand closer to superiority by making it “-er”?

"Are you really moving your brand closer to superiority by making it “-er”?"

Companies with a superiority complex are constantly striving to keep up with the competition and are exhausting themselves by “-er”ing their products to death. What they should be doing is setting their next iterative initiative on pause and taking time to truly understand what superiority means to their brand, category and, most importantly, target consumers. 

Superiority and consumers’ evolving value sets

Success, power and dominance are key characteristics of superiority, both for people and for brands. If all people believed that achieving superiority meant possessing bigger, better and bolder products, then brands would just have to keep one-upping the competitors to make consumers happy (although this tactic is really just a quick fix to counter competitive threats). However, that phenomenon is not what we are witnessing in the marketplace. People continually redefine and reshape their perceptions of superiority — and what constitutes a superior product — based on what they value at a particular time and place in their lives. What was considered successful, powerful and dominant (i.e., superior) 50, 20, 10 or even two years ago may not be deemed so today. That is why it is imperative that companies keep current on consumers’ evolving value sets — everything from community involvement, personalization and great design, to evidence of being green — because they are key factors in the brand selection process. Purchased brands serve as an outward expression of a consumer’s values and beliefs; they tell friends, family and colleagues what’s important to that individual. Being bigger or better might be important measures of brand superiority to some of today’s consumers, but to others, a brand’s commitment to sustainability may be a more powerful factor in their purchase decision.

Discovering what a brand’s targeted consumers value requires spending time with them, getting to know them, and identifying key attributes, desires and emotional drivers that comprise their value system. Sometimes when you ask a person — especially in a focus group or interview setting — what they think about a product or brand, they will tell you that they value “bigger, better, bolder.” They will provide purely functional answers to generally functional questions. In reality, however, they may have other, less overt thoughts about superiority that better reflect their values. It can be difficult for a consumer to articulate why they value one thing over another, especially if their choice seems irrational. However, it is important to remember that emotions play a much stronger role in decision-making than we rational creatures like to admit. Spending more money for a brand that protects the environment but does not offer superior cleaning power may seem irrational in the context of the product questioning, so it is more likely for a consumer to say, “I prefer the more powerful cleaner.” Only by probing beyond the rational response is it possible to identify what truly motivates an individual to define a product or service as superior. Case in point: It seems irrational to spend $4 on a cup of coffee, but people like me do it all the time. We often justify our emotional purchase by telling friends it is better, bolder (superior) coffee.

Everyone gets a trophy

Thinking about the concept of superiority got me wondering how the characteristic resonates with, for example, Gen Y, a coveted consumer group that grew up receiving trophies just for participating — playing soccer games without counting the goals, for instance — and witnessing people achieve positions of authority and tremendous financial success even though they bypassed the traditional prerequisites of years of schooling and “paying their dues.” Gen Y’s values have been shaped by — among other things — a booming global economy that went bust; 9/11; nontraditional families; support networks wearing pink, red or yellow ribbons; global warming; and a communications technology explosion. Things change quickly in Gen Y’s world, so these consumers don’t necessarily value an item that lasts forever (“good enough” is fine with them); however, they do value something that works and is there for them on demand. Other Gen Y values include patriotism, diversity, compassion, connecting and optimistic thinking and doing. These values may not be easily rationalized, as they are much more emotionally driven. 

For today’s Gen Y audience, being superior doesn’t necessarily mean that one brand has to shout that it is bigger, bolder or stronger than another. It may simply mean that a brand speaks directly to them and their values. For example, reading about a brand’s efficacy — how it works and interacts with the planet (e.g., recyclability) — is something that certain audiences can feel good about. It is also important to consider the many ways a consumer interacts with a brand and how that reflects their values. Since Gen Y consumers value community and connection, for example, they want to know that their chosen brands do too. By donating to charitable causes, supporting local events or professing an opinion on Facebook, a brand can forge a connection with consumers that extends well beyond the pantry shelf and dinner table, creating a new value equation that is much more powerful than “bigger, better, bolder.”

Of course, Gen Y is just one of several possible consumer segments that a brand may want to target. Understanding what values drive Generation X or Baby Boomers — and how those values change over time — is key to determining how each generation defines brand superiority.

Superiority today and tomorrow

There is no right way or “-er” way to ensure brand superiority. However, making sure that brand improvements or iterations are based on changing consumer values — rather than a quest to better the competition — can position a brand for “bigger, better, bolder” market success.