Hard versus soft attributes.

December 1, 2012

The dean of one of the country’s most-prestigious business schools has just announced a ground-breaking positioning program for her institution. As a leading marketing strategist put it, “Her pro

cess, strategy and implementation program may someday be taught as a graduate-school case study.”

It was a massive endeavor. “We literally had hundreds of alumni, students and faculty engaged with us in developing our plan,” the dean said.

She also had leading consulting firms “helping do a deep dive on our competitive positioning, evaluating where we were, where our competitors are and thinking about where the green space is that we should move to in the future.”

“Think bravely.”

That’s the green space. As the dean said: “Businesses can be bravely led, passionately collaborative and world changing. It is time to elevate the art and science of management to bring together ideas and push complex human organizations forward. That’s what we teach.”

In other words, be “brave, passionate and collaborative.” And that will elevate the art and science of management to push complex human organizations forward.

I have no doubt that someday “Think bravely” will be taught as a graduate-school case study. That’s where marketing is headed.

The focus today is on soft, emotional attributes that may stir the hearts and minds of the people inside the building, but do nothing to touch prospects on the outside of the building.

“Think different.”

That was Apple’s soft, emotional slogan created in 1997 by Steve Jobs, with the help of advertising agency TBWAChiatDay.

While Apple’s slogan was widely admired, the numbers tell a different story. In 1997, Apple had revenues of $7.1 billion. Five years later (in 2001) Apple’s revenues were $5.4 billion. After five years of “Think different,” sales were down 24 percent.

It wasn’t until October 23, 2001, that Apple started down the road that made it the most-valuable company in the world. That was the date the iPod was launched.

Instead of thinking different, Apple finally got around to acting different. The new slogan: “A thousand songs in your pocket.” (A much better slogan than “Think different, buy an iPod.”)

While soft, emotional slogans might be memorable, they don’t drive sales unless they are also motivational. You need both to be effective. We call it the M&M approach: Memorable & motivational.

Think “H . . I . . L . . T . . O . . N.”

Here is what a new CEO of the hotel chain recently said: “We had a lot of segments of the company that operated very independently, and we had massive amounts of duplication and fragmentation. We needed alignment. We needed people to understand who we were, what we stood for and the key priorities of the company. And we need them, once they understood that, to get their oars in the water and head in a common direction.”

The common direction?

“Hospitality, integrity, leadership, teamwork, ownership and now.” Six soft attributes, but fortuitously the soft attributes just happens to spell out the letters HILTON.

It’s a common disease. Major corporations around the world are spending huge amounts of time and money thinking up soft, emotional positioning slogans.

After “moving forward” for almost a decade, Toyota has a new slogan. “It is energetic, aspirational, inclusive and very versatile,” said Toyota’s general manager.

Here is Toyota’s energetic, aspirational, inclusive and versatile new slogan created with the help of six outside advertising partners.

“Let’s go places.”

“The phrase,” according to Toyota’s general manager, “conveys a dual meaning of physically going places and taking off on an adventure, while also expressing optimism and the promise of exciting innovation that enriches people’s lives.”

The automobile industry is particularly guilty of creating soft, emotional slogans. Some examples:

• Acura . . . . “Advance.”
• Dodge . . . . “Grab life.”
• Ford . . . . . . “Go further.”
• Honda . . . .  “The power of dreams.
• Hyundai . . . “New thinking. New possibilities.”
• Infiniti . . . . “Inspired performance.”

What makes a slogan effective, in my opinion, is its degree of tangibility. An effective slogan is one you can literally reach out and touch. (Dictionary definition of tangible: “Can be touched having form and substance.”) Some examples:

• Clinique . . . . . . . . “Allergy tested. 100% fragrance free.”
• Enterprise . . . . . . “We’ll pick you up.”
• M&M’s . . . . . . . . . “Melts in your mouth. Not in your hands.”
• Michelob Ultra . . . “Lose the carbs. Not the taste.”
• Splenda . . . . . . . . . “Made from sugar, so it taste like sugar.”
• Zappos . . . . . . . . . .”Free shipping. Both ways.”
Take the Pledge of Allegiance. What are we pledging our allegiance to? “. . . the flag of the United States.” The flag is a redundant addition, but it makes the pledge more tangible. Something you can reach out and touch.

Why the focus on soft attributes?

In spite of these and many other examples of the superiority of hard attributes, the trend is towards soft attributes. Why is this so?

There seems to be a feeling that a soft attribute can be “pre-empted,” while a hard attribute can easily be copied by the competition.

It’s true, of course, that every shoe-selling site could easily have copied “Free shipping. Both ways.” And perhaps they did.

But the reality is that Zappos’ original claim generated reams of publicity while the copycats, if they actually exist, were ignored by the media.

Marketing people focus too much on “differentiation” when they should be focused on “pre-emption.” A powerful marketing program focused on a hard attribute allows a brand to pre-empt the concept in consumers’ minds.

Like BMW with “driving.” And Volvo with “safety.”

When you pre-empt a hard attribute with an aggressive marketing program, it doesn’t really matter if competitors copy your idea.

Actually it helps. Copycats make the attribute seem more important to consumers while confirming the leadership position of the brand that pre-empted the idea.

The next time someone says, We can’t do that because our competitors will just copy the idea and we’ll lose our point of differentiation, just reply, So what!

What you lose on differentiation, you’ll gain on pre-emption.

By the way, the prestigious business school is Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management, but you probably already knew that, thanks to “Think bravely,” its new positioning program.