Becoming Dai-Sensei

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Times are tough in business, and many unsuccessfully attempt to navigate through the maelstrom by mirroring the competition. But, in a world where credibility is king, becoming ‘dai-sensei’ could be …

Times are tough in business, and many unsuccessfully attempt to navigate through the maelstrom by mirroring the competition. But, in a world where credibility is king, becoming ‘dai-sensei’ could be the answer, argues Mariel Brown, Head of Trends at Seymourpowell.

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  • 1. BecomingDai-Sensei
  • 2. ‘How can we get consumers to choose us over the competition?’ This is a question businesses have been asking themselves since commerce began. But in times of economic instability this question takes on an even greater significance. It becomes more than a question of increasing profit margins, it is a question of survival. It is life or death. As the dark clouds of economic hardship refuse to clear, the corporate world’s answer to this conundrum increasingly puts emphasis on the ‘competition’ element of the question rather than the ‘consumer’ part. Of course, brands have always looked to one another for, shall we say, inspiration. But in recent times it would seem brands are monitoring their competitors more closely than ever. They are living in fear, terrified of being left behind, or – worse still – being the first to break cover. As a result, for every step that is taken by one brand, a counter step is taken by their competitors to match it. They are turning Times are tough in business, themselves into ‘brand doppelgängers’ – ghostly doubles or and many unsuccessfully lookalikes. We can see these brand doppelgängers across many categories from food, retail and beauty, through to attempt to navigate through consumer electronics and the automotive industry. Even the glamorous vacuum cleaning market has its fair share of them. the maelstrom by mirroring More worryingly is how deeply engrained this copycat behaviour the competition. But, in a is across a number of consumer touch-points from marketing and advertising, through to products and packaging. My world where credibility is colleagues and I recently conducted a round of research for king, becoming ‘dai-sensei’ an alcohol brand in Eastern Europe. We were lucky enough to spend time with a number of bright young things aged between could be the answer... 22 – 30 who regularly attended all the major clubs and bars of their city. One reoccurring theme we found through our research was the indistinguishable nature of most of the big brands in MARIEL BROWN Head of Trends at Seymourpowell their on-trade marketing. Our respondents frequently expressed disappointment in the lack of imagination and individualityConfidential. © Seymour Powell Limited, 2012. All rights reserved.
  • 3. of many branded events. So similar were some marketingstrategies that one group who had attended a sponsored eventa few weeks prior to our meeting couldn’t even remember whotheir corporate host was. This is the inherent danger that comeswith being a brand doppelgänger. It’s of little wonder consumers areIt appears that as brands attempt to play it safe, they areblurring the choices available in the market place. The trouble frustrated and angered by brandis that playing it safe isn’t helping anyone; instead it creates anindistinct mulch of options. It’s sucking the life out of brands, doppelgängers especially whenand more critically it’s turning the consumer off. Ultimately this is initiatives are more like ‘me-too’bad news for business.Perhaps the most notable example of this is the much- campaigns.publicised Apple vs. Samsung lawsuit, which finally reachedcourt this summer. Here, Apple accuses Samsung of infringingon many of their copyrights including user interfaces, product This reaction is a reminder of one dramatic change we haveand packaging designs. What is particularly interesting with this witnessed in recent years: Thanks to hyper-connectivity therecase isn’t the drawn-out game of chess being played by two is nowhere to hide for brands. Consumers are empowered likeconsumer electronics giants, but rather how connected the never before, they are talking to one another like never before,consumers are in the argument. The geek community (unlike and – perhaps more importantly – thanks to the global recessionthe courts) were quick to pass their judgment. They sided with and a loss of faith in governments, they are listening to oneApple. Barely hours after the story hit the headlines amateur another even more intently. Brand integrity has taken on a criticalphotos of Apple’s iPhone 3GS placed next to Samsung’s Galaxy new significance.S i900 flooded the web as perturbed individuals enthusiasticallywaded in with their own photographic evidence. McDonald’s recently learned of this significance at their own cost: After witnessing the success many brands were having with forays into social media, McDonald’s launched the hashtag #McDStories where customers could share their positive Maccy D’s experiences. But, instead of offering gleaming stories of marketing gold, it quickly spiralled into...playing it safe isn’t helping a PR disaster. Before it was hastily pulled, their Twitter campaign was inundated with sarcastic tweets, the mostanyone... It’s sucking the life out infamous of which involved diabetes and upset stomachs – obviously far from what McDonald’s were hoping for.of brands, and more critically it’s So focused were they on getting on the social media bandwagon, they underestimated the power of the modern-turning the consumer off. day beast they were dealing with. Worse still, this campaign was an uncomfortable fit for their brand. Consumers took this as insincere and hit back.Confidential. © Seymour Powell Limited, 2012. All rights reserved.
  • 4. It’s of little wonder consumers are frustrated and angered by heads spinning (as we saw with McDonald’s and their Twitterbrand doppelgängers especially when initiatives are more like campaign). Add to this the perpetual sideways glancing at the‘me-too’ campaigns. It’s akin to turning up to an AC/DC gig to competition, and it is no surprise that many businesses arefind they’ve instead been replaced with AC/DShe, their all- experiencing a rather painful crick in their neck.female tribute act. There is a reason AC/DC sell out stadiumsand their tribute act struggle to fill pubs. People crave originality.Strangely, if you speak to brands they often say their aim isto stand out, but their focus is generally on small incrementalchanges. They say they want innovation but often what theyend up with is something that is new for the sake of being new As we move through this timewithout taking any real steps forward. Richard Seymour, one ofthe founders of design and innovation company Seymourpowell of great flux people are craving(and my boss), describes this as the confusion between the stability, things they can put‘new’ and the ‘better’. He says, “This semantic separation of‘better’ from ‘new’ is critically important in any form of new their trust in... there is a strongproduct development. The former is a path to self-sustainingexcellence and brand reputation. The latter is a method of desire for credibility and integrity.occasionally refreshing your product line-up without necessarilyestablishing strong brand equities and longevity. One has a midto long-term direction; one hasn’t, necessarily.” So how can brands break free of this unhealthy downwardWhat further muddies the water are the giant leaps being made spiral? How can they plot a course to successfully navigatein technology. Social media and viral marketing are proving through these tumultuous times and direct them towards ato be a distracting siren’s call that has sent many brands’ brighter and better future? The Japanese notion of ‘dai-sensei’ could offer some answers. Lets begin by breaking down its meaning. Sen, meaning ‘before’, and Sei, meaning to be ‘born’, directly combines toIf we apply the notion of make ‘Sensei’ which means ‘one who is born before another’. The term has many nuances but generally it is used to imply abecoming a dai-sensei to brands master or a teacher, and shows respect to someone who has achieved a certain level of mastery in an art form or skill. Whenit would have less to do with this is prefixed by the word ‘Dai’, which means ‘great’ or ‘large’,mirroring the competition and it can be literally translated as ‘grand master’. The term is often used to describe the top sensei, someone who is held in greatmore to do with leading it. esteem… a guiding light for others. If we apply the notion of becoming a dai-sensei to brands it would have less to do with mirroring the competition and moreConfidential. © Seymour Powell Limited, 2012. All rights reserved.
  • 5. to do with leading it. It’s ambitious. It demands a fundamental designed handset. Voters cited the models stunning looks,shift towards the exceptional. smart ergonomics and commended it in particular for bringing something new to the market. Incidentally, the smartphone toThe inherent honour of dai-sensei may seem from another world take second prize in this poll was Samsung’s attractive Galaxyand another time, yet it has a powerful resonance today: As we S3 (which, by the way, looks nothing like an iPhone). Themove through this time of great flux people are craving stability, Lumia’s warm reception shows us that brands will do well if theythings they can put their trust in. As we’ve seen above, there can develop a deep understanding of who they themselves are,is a strong desire for credibility and integrity. These times of and release crafted and well-considered products that representausterity have forced people to recalibrate their value systems; this unique character.people are investing more in experiences and less in materialobjects. Average products and services will no longer cut the This brings us onto perhaps the key element of the dai-senseimustard; instead we need to offer the unique and outstanding. concept – that of wisdom. We are in a period of accelerated change and so making a wise choice is vital. Never before in human history have we had access to so much information. To individuals this is exciting, but to brands it can be seriously distracting and paralysing. It becomes a giant magnetic field messing with many of their internal compasses....brands will do well if they can Instead of watching the competition and obsessing over socialdevelop a deep understanding media, brands should have their eyes firmly fixed on real human needs and desires. They need to get to the truth of who theyof who they themselves are, are and rediscover what they can offer people that will makeand release crafted and well- their lives better. Instead of asking, ‘How can we get consumers to choose us over the competition?’ They should think more likeconsidered products that the Japanese dai-sensei and ask, ‘What can we do that will be of value to people and the world?’represent this unique character. It is only by striving for the sublime that they can become the grand masters of their categories.Promising examples of dai-sensei thinking can be seen inNokia’s new iPhone rivals, the Lumia 800 and 900. With its To find out more please contactrelease Nokia have made a bold move that shows the world its Tim Duncan - tim.duncan@seymourpowell.comintentions; they are setting their own course for the future ratherthan this being dictated by the rest of the mobile phone gang.The Nokia Lumia has been described as “breathing new life”into the mobile device market thanks to its distinctive design andhigh level of manufacturing finish. The release is helping Nokiaregain territory it has struggled to hold onto in recent years - iteven recently topped a Swiss online poll for the most beautifullyConfidential. © Seymour Powell Limited, 2012. All rights reserved.