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The Rise of a New Type of Brand: The Outlier

A good brand offers a relevant promise and a credible point of difference, its “reason for being.”  What is emerging today however, is a form of branding that focuses so much on being different that this distinction often becomes the main focal point, instead of the promise or benefit.  This is happening in politics where new candidates (i.e. “outliers”) strongly emphasize their stance as a unique alternative to established rivals.  Similarly, new business ventures are offering a better value choice compared to traditional brand leaders.

Behind this political phenomenon of “anti-establishment” is a growing perception that government is saturated with corruption and cronyism. Transparency International defines corruption as “the abuse of entrusted power for private gain.”  Common examples include influence of wealthy individuals over government, “pay to play” politics, and the abuse of the US financial system by corrupt foreign kleptocrats and local elites.  The organization’s 2017 survey supports this perception:

  • 44% of Americans believe corruption is pervasive in the White House, up from 36% in 2016.
  • Almost 7 out of 10 people believe government is failing to fight corruption, up from half in 2016
  • The leading sources of corruption:  the President and his officials (44%), Members of Congress (38%), and Government officials (33%)

Separately, a Gallup poll in late 2015 indicated that 75% of Americans see widespread government corruption, compared to France (64%), UK (46%), Canada (44%), Netherlands (40%), Germany (38%) and the Scandinavian countries (30%-14%).

This surging wrath at the status quo and distrust of traditional institutions has created a rising force, which political scientists call “negative partisanship.”  This has manifested itself with Americans increasingly voting based on their fear and distrust of the other side, as opposed to support for their own beliefs. In short, voters are driven more by their “anti” bias and anger against opponents.

This trend is having a huge impact on how political candidates are positioning their personal brand, with a major emphasis on how they don’t represent the status quo. A good example is Lori Lightfoot, a black, openly gay woman who was recently elected mayor of Chicago. She positioned her brand as an “outlier,” someone who is obviously not a member of the “good old boys club.” Lightfoot effectively appealed to this shift in public sentiment and the public’s rejection of an entrenched political culture that traditionally rewarded insiders and dismissed the unknown. She turned her outsider status into an asset to beat Toni Preckwinkle, president of the Cook County Board. 

This phenomenon in politics, defined by opposition to the status quo, to the establishment and to one’s partisan rivals, has become widespread across many Western democracies. In France, the “yellow vest” protestors can only agree on their anger against the established norms, but there is no consensus on what they want instead. British voters, when discussing Brexit can clearly articulate what they oppose – no to Prime Minister May’s deal, no to leaving the EU without a deal, and no to those who want to stay, but not for any plan for leaving or staying. In the U.S., Republicans ran for three consecutive elections on opposition to the Affordable Care Act, or as they coined it, “Obamacare,” but could not develop a cohesive plan to replace it when taking the White House and both houses of Congress.

Traditionally, political establishments controlled access to elective office. Today technology has changed this pattern. Candidates can raise money online, running without the consent of party chiefs, and reach voters through social media, thereby circumventing gatekeepers and mainstream media. This has produced controversial and outspoken Congressional newcomers such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez from New York. She positioned her political brand as distinctively anti-establishment.

This trend of focusing more on being “anti-status quo” is evident in business too, where established brand leaders in many consumer product categories are feeling the pressure from entrepreneurial brands that position themselves as “outliers” offering better value, and using social media extensively to reach younger, more open-minded consumers. They have endured a decade of stagnant wages, saddled with college debt and are now focused on value. At the retail level, the growth is coming from value retailers like Costco, Sam’s Club and digital outlets. 

A good example of targeting category leaders with lower pricing is the razor blade industry. Upstart Harry’s offers high quality, appealing design and more affordable pricing than Gillette or Schick, and has made serious inroads as a result. Similarly, Warby-Parker sells high-quality, stylish, high-end prescription glasses online at a price that significantly undercuts the competition. Both companies give a chunk of their sales to charities, which definitely appeals to Millennials.

This trend of outlier brands opposing the establishment or entrenched competition is perhaps a reflection of our intensely partisan world, which hopefully will not last long. It has certainly proven to be effective recently, but strategically success in the long run will be assured only if a positive message or promise regains its primary focus in brand positioning. 

Jay Gronlund

Jay Gronlund is an experienced business development and branding professional with a successful track record introducing new products and services, expanding into foreign markets, re-positioning products, and facilitating ideation sessions. Jay has effectively applied proven marketing and branding principles from his background in the consumer goods industry to other industry sectors, including B2B situations. Jay’s career began in consumer packaged goods and then expanded into household products, beverages and publishing. His first company was Richardson-Vicks (now part of Proctor & Gamble), where he held new product positions in New York and in London. He continued his new product responsibilities for Arm & Hammer products at Church & Dwight (Arm & Hammer), then VP Marketing of the wine/champagne division of Seagram, and finally VP, Director of Marketing at Newsweek. Gronlund started The Pathfinder Group in New York in 1990, an international business development and brand consulting firm. Related to this, much of his work today involves re-positioning brands, ideation sessions and marketing workshops, with a primary focus on emotional branding, especially building brand trust for clients. Jay has also been teaching a marketing course at NYU since 1999, “Positioning and Brand Development". Jay recently wrote a new book, “Basics of Branding," reflecting his NYU branding course and professional experience. He has also published several articles on diverse marketing topics: “5 Steps to a Successful Ideation Session," “What B2B Marketers can Learn from B2C," “Employer Branding," “Customized Marketing for Tomorrow’s Leaders," “Sharing and Implementing New Ideas Across Borders," and “Working with the New Russians”, “Word-of-Mouth Marketing for B2B Situations," “The Future of m-Health” and “How to Build ‘Value’ for Healthcare Brands in Emerging Markets." Jay Gronlund is a graduate of Colby College and has an MBA from Tuck at Dartmouth College.

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