In football, there are times when you want your opponent to slide in and try and take your legs out. You want them to commit to a tackle. In fact, you want to seduce them into it.
The idea is to make yourself just open enough to seem like they can take the ball off your feet – and then skip past them in the last possible microsecond.
Only the world’s best players can actually pull it off repeatedly. The world’s ‘pretty good’ players just end up getting tackled (and therefore injured) a lot.
But while it takes great skill to evade the tackle, it only takes courage to invite it.
I think that’s true for brands as well.
The always-entertaining Mark Ritson wrote last year about how Pret A Manger (a healthy fast food chain here in the UK) was in trouble for not serving the most ‘natural’ bread.
“Even though its bread is surely devoid of many more E numbers than its fast food rivals, its target customers, the expectations they have, the brand positioning and 20 years of advertising on napkins are all pointing to ‘natural’. Customers go to Pret because it is additive-free and the news that it is not will hit the brand much harder than KFC, McDonald’s or Subway.”
It’s precisely because Pret has worked so hard to get known as the natural brand that they’re held to a higher standard.
That will almost certainly feel unfair to the no-doubt-sleep-deprived marketers in the middle of that crisis, but it’s actually a testament to how well they’ve positioned their brand.
You want your market to get mad at you for not doing what you said you would. It’s how you know you’re doing something worth doing.
The thing is, a company’s positioning isn’t just a promise it makes. It’s also its ability to live up to that promise.
So when you’re trying to position your company, the calculation you’re making is based on two variables. For starters, you’re trying to shape a story so compelling the market just has to do something about it.
But you’re also trying to figure out what your company can actually do. If you promise too much, you’re just setting yourself up to look foolish later.
If you promise too little, you’re just setting yourself up for tumbleweeds.
This is where courage matters most for technology companies.
You will ruffle no feathers within the business if you make an underwhelming but technically accurate promise on behalf of the product team*.
You may even win bonus points if you cover up some of the company’s deficiencies with a cleverly evasive story.
But it’s at moments like these that you have to ask yourself who marketing really represents.
If marketing only represents the business, then all you have to do is articulate the promises the business can already keep.
If marketing also represents the market – the customer, the prospect, the mission that both you and your buyers care about – then what you have to do is articulate the promises the market needs you to keep.
It takes talent and engineering and a well-structured business model to actually keep those promises.
But it takes brave marketing to make them.
*Especially the product teams that are just happy marketing understands the product.
Image credit: KKIMphotography