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The Power of Polarizing Brands

June 8, 2017

“Love me or hate me, both are in my favor…If you love me, I’ll always be in your heart…If you hate me, I’ll always be in your mind” – William Shakespeare

There’s an Irish proverb that goes: “if you want an audience, start a fight.” Modern politics would tend to support this claim. But it’s just as relevant when building brands.

Brand strategy is about staking a claim and living up to that claim. Brands become strong and create trust when the following is true:

What you SAY = What you DO

The stronger what you say, and the more that message resonates with a desired group of people, the better. When you deliver on that message, people start trusting the brand. In the end, it comes down to standing for something, and delivering it. 

But standing for something also means not standing for something else.

Many companies claim to stand for “quality”. They talk about having an “authentic workplace culture”, and “going the extra mile.” But these claims are so common and ubiquitous that they don’t actually mean anything. Everybody stands for those things. As a result nobody does.

If you really want to stand for something, you have to risk that some people will feel left out or alienated. In other words, you need to polarize.  “Extremism in the pursuit of remarkability is no sin. In fact, it’s practically a requirement,” says Seth Godin.

This can be explained by the fundamentals of strategy. Strategy is a choice—to do one thing, and not another.

Strategy guru Roger Martin has a great trick to figure out whether you’ve actually made a strategic choice: Take what you claim to be the strategic choice. Then say the opposite. If the opposite sounds stupid on its head, then you haven’t actually made a choice.

For example, imagine that you claim to be all about “pleasing the customer”. The opposite is “displeasing the customer.” Of course, that’s not a viable option. So “pleasing the customer” isn’t a strategic choice — it’s just common sense. 

So what’s a better example? How about a particularly notorious European airline. It basically stands for “offering the cheapest possible airline fares — and don’t expect anything more than that.”

Say what you want about the company and its customer service, but it has made a clear choice. There is a viable alternative that it has not pursued (like premium prices and premium service). It stands for something, and not something else.

You can disagree all you want (and many people do). But the company DOES what it SAYS. It stands for something. It polarizes. And more than 100 million passengers pay them for their trouble every year.

Standing for something that some people don’t agree with is tough. But that’s the whole point. The harder the strategic choice is to make, the more difficult it is for competitors to make that same choice, and the easier it is to stick out1.

So who might you alienate today?

  1. It’s important to note that you need to stick out in a useful way, and not just for the sake of it. As Seth Godin says: “Running down the street naked will get you noticed, but it won’t accomplish much. It’s easy to pull off a stunt, but not useful.”


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