Back in 2011, Australia was on fire! It didn’t involve a huge natural disaster, alien attack or a visit from the Queen. All the fuss was about personalized Coca-Cola cans, with the most popular Australian names written boldly in the iconic Coke font. A bunch of people occupied the soft drinks shelves searching for their own branded can. And BOOM, experts gave the name to the movement – Me Selling Proposition (MSP)! MSP was mentioned for the first time in 2005, in the book written by Martin Lindstrom. Six years later, Lindstrom explained the key points of his book in the Fast company’s article, where he described Me Selling Proposition as a powerful marketing and selling tool which narrows the distance between brands and customers.
Hooray for the evolution, of human kind, of services, of products and of needs. However, once the market became oversaturated with different products and services, a level of recognition had to be added. That recognition comes from being different, or unique. Hence, Unique Selling Proposition – USP. But how do you differentiate on a market where there are 500 different tastes of sugared water? Here’s how brands got back to the basics, directly to their customers’ needs and approached them on a personal level. That’s how ME got back to the customer.
History of branding
This might come as a surprise to you, but branding can be traced all the way back to the Stone Age, when hunters preferred one “brand” of weapons over the other, believing it will bring them more success whilst hunting. According to branding experts Eric Almquist and Kenneth J. Roberts, ancient toolmakers used trademark styles to differentiate their weapons and tools from other ones. Symbols have been used as a way of displaying information about the seller and his reputation, and people gave more trust to those who have proven themselves more efficient. For instance, Viking shipbuilders were known as great crafters of vessels, so they made sure to leave some kind of signature on their products. Silversmiths in the later centuries used marks to prove the purity of their materials. And let’s not forget the first herders who branded their livestock to declare ownership, a practice that lived to our days as well.
Take the case of Josiah Wedgwood as an example: he was an 18th century pottery designer and manufacturer who was the first among many to show true entrepreneurial spirit in the world of pottery making. He was hard working and did extensive researches about both materials and business models, while implementing scientific methods to further develop his pottery crafts. Namely, Wedgwood partnered with Thomas Whieldon (the leading potter of that time), and with his support – he managed to create an experiment book, in which he explored new possible paths of pottery making. One of Wedgwood’s greatest inventions was the improved green glaze that’s still being used in the 21st century. The fact he was ready to go an extra mile revolutionized the quality of his wares. He managed to distinguish himself from others on the market, charming the bourgeoisie and the royalty itself. English Queen Charlotte herself was stunned by Wedgwood’s work and because of her patronage – the pottery became known as Queen’s ware. Gaining regular customers came naturally, and Mr. Wedgwood succeeded at maintaining an exquisite reputation until the day he died.
Now, that’s what we can call great branding.
If you try to strip marketing to its very essence, you will see that it’s all about finding a common language with people, a language that is effective enough to showcase your quality and uniqueness.
But just as humans have evolved through time, so have marketing and branding practices.
Branding in the Swinging Fifties and Flower-power Sixties
Fifties spawned a term that became a buzzword in our era: brand loyalty. The concept was introduced by Ross M. Cunningham in 1956, when companies already recognized how branding is important, even though they frequently lacked the mechanisms of building brand loyalty. It was not easy to pioneer at something like this. As markets gradually expanded – relying solely on quality to speak for the business became insufficient. Consumers had more products and services to compare, which instantly meant some brands were favored as better options while others fell to the bottom of the pyramid.
That was the point when brand discipline and smart brand management came into play. They were the ones to distinguish one business from another.
Managers knew they have to give their products identity and not just any kind of identity – but the one that would appeal to consumers. Faced with the standardization of the quality, companies turned to something called unique selling proposition.
Although it had an emotional aura around it from the very start, branded proposition in this era focused on explaining what the product is. Companies worked hard to design their marketing campaigns in a way that educates consumers about the characteristics of the products they offer, and what makes them a better choice compared to the competitors. This approach was present for a very long time, ever since the late 19th century when Coca Cola gave away free samples of their bottles in order to give consumers a chance to taste it (and like it).
Some of the most successful brands at the time included Tide, Kodak, Chevrolet, Lucky Strike, etc.
Sixties saw a continuation with this practice, but this was also the time when another important factor got recognized and set a new course for marketing campaigns: lifestyle. The roots of lifestyle marketing were planted here, but the full bloom of it happened in the mid seventies, which initiated a gradual shift from unique selling proposition to something new and different.
Seventies or the Years of Individuality
In most parts of the world, seventies were marked by moving away from communitarianism towards individualism. Social activism was heavily focused on spreading antiwar values, but people were also exhausted by the economic crisis.
This was the era when brands focused on underlining both what the product is and what it can do. Product functionality was now heavily promoted and more accent was put on developing emotional attachment around the brand.
Those were the times when emotional selling proposition was conceived which will later dominate the marketing world, in the early years of the 21st century, to be precise.
The most glorious example of this is the famous battle of two globally renowned brands: Coke and Pepsi. Emotional selling proposition is all about favoring emotions over rational arguments in attempts to sell something. It’s about creating a bond with consumers and tying them to the brand through emotions.
Speaking of emotions, Martin Lindstrom, the author of “Brand Sense”, wrote about the importance of engaging all senses of consumers in order to create a strong bond and positive associations for the brand. Usually, most of the marketers focused on the visual and audio, leaving other senses behind, even though they hide great potential.
One of the examples Lindstrom mentioned is Singapore Airlines and their efforts to engage customers olfactory: before and after takeoff, flight attendants give away scented hot towels. Who knew branding through scent could be so effective?
New Shift in Eighties and Nineties
Eighties and nineties continued further developing ESP and that’s when relationship marketing became a new talk of the town. Having an articulated brand became a priority for companies. Now it wasn’t just about building a reputation of a trustworthy brand, but trying to get the love of customers by making the act of purchasing more meaningful and turning it into a sort of friendship.
So, what did the companies do?
They’ve put an equal sign between the company itself and the brand. That was the beginning of organizational selling proposition, one of the most important concepts that strengthened the idea of brand equity.
Nike is the most frequently cited example: their “Just Do It” slogan has survived decades and became their trademark. The power of this message communicates volumes to their target groups. Customers feel that by purchasing Nike goods – they are not just buying quality sportswear, but participating in something greater. Nike has done a tremendous job of creating a common cause that consumers could relate to. The brand positioned itself as an ally in the fight for a healthier lifestyle.
Nineties were all about brand selling proposition, when the main focus of consumers was placed on the value of the brands themselves. The emotional bond has risen to its full potential by now, as consumers wanted to have branded goods.
Just think about Disney movies, Harry Potter, or any other popular craze. People want to own branded stuff – not necessarily because they need them or because they enjoy the aesthetics, but for emotional reasons. Here’s a contemporary example to prove the point: sales of Star Wars licensed merchandise. According to the Nielsen report, “The Force Awakens” managed to get $2 billion in ticket sales, while branded goods were around $6 billion in one fiscal year.
The Birth of the Me Selling Proposition
According to the study conducted by Yankelovich, we are exposed up to stunning 5000 brand messages every day. New millennium gave us an overwhelming amount of brand offers, which is a natural consequence of the increasing competitiveness of the global market. There is a lot of noise, which makes it extremely hard for brands to get heard. Once they do find a way to reach their audience and communicate their identity and values, they have to do it right.
All the previously mentioned selling propositions lead the way to the me selling proposition that has customization and personalization in its focus. It brought a completely new position of power when it comes to marketing and selling – by narrowing the distance between brands and customers.
This might sound as a paradox at first, but in order to become powerful, brands need to hand over the power to consumers. Consumers take ownership of the brands by shaping them to their own needs and wants. By letting them actively participate and symbolically inviting them inside the companies, brands are actually succeeding at what all the previous proposition strategies struggled with – humanizing their businesses.
Me selling proposition brought us the most important transformation – the one regarding the way we treat consumers.
The border between companies and consumers erases, and consumers are not perceived as subjects with money, but as real human beings. The profit remains in the business equation, but it becomes secondary. The experience is put under a spotlight, warm interactions with the brand, as well as the open acknowledgment of consumers’ creativity and ideas. Paying for these positive experiences comes a lot easier, as the whole process is welcoming and with the element of fun.
Take Levi’s and their smart me selling proposition: all users were provided with a chance to visit the company website and design the products to perfectly match their needs. Converse (acquired by Nike now) is another brand that offered a simple step-by-step process of designing custom shoes online. It’s entertaining, inspiring, and the most important thing of it all – consumers are thrilled to own something no one else will.
The uniqueness that was once fiery expensive, has now become the norm. Brands can either adapt or risk getting pushed by those who are smart enough to adjust their sails to the new “me” wind.
For centuries, companies have been puzzled about the way to stand out from the crowd. No doubt about it, differentiation on the market has always been a complex task. For centuries, brands have pointed their efforts inwards, trying to improve their business processes and adjust marketing strategies so to draw attention.
Who knew that all they had to do is look outside of office walls and that the answer lies in the consumer themselves? Just by briefly analyzing the evolution of marketing and its context through different eras in history, we can conclude personalization was the natural next step, as everything builded up to it.