A view from Helen Edwards

Why there is never sleep for marketers

Premier Inn is the latest advertiser to find that having a point of difference is not enough for consumers

There was a phrase that got bandied about a fair bit when I worked on the agency side – one that colleagues and rivals would deploy to pass judgment on your latest ad: "Your strategy is showing."

It wasn’t meant as a compliment – although, thinking about it now, I can’t see why. The implication was that marketing strategy was an embarrassing undergarment and that it was vulgar when the outer apparel of advertising wasn’t refined enough to completely mask it. 

I don’t hear the phrase so much these days. Perhaps media has become so fragmented, and budgets so thinly stretched, that having consumers even vaguely getting a sniff of your underlying point is considered something of a breakthrough.

Here’s a campaign it could apply to, though: the latest from Premier Inn. National treasure Sir Lenny Henry has been shoved off the bed and a gang of unknown but energetic guests have taken his place. They dance. They walk down corridors. They dry their hair. They have breakfast, take showers, go to the bar. If there were a verb "to hotel", this would be them doing it, all to a high-octane track and big, wake-up titles.

But why? The previous seven years’ work focused on the Premier Inn difference – a good night’s sleep. It was distinctive, reassuring and rooted in the most important thing you go to a hotel for and don’t always find in the budget sector. It won an IPA Effectiveness Award and built the UK’s strongest hotel brand. Why change?

It’s depressingly obvious. Consumers, that’s why. Perverse. Narrow. Literal. With consumers, you just can’t win. Play up your category difference for long enough and they will start to assume you don’t deliver on the other category norms.

Marketing academic Kevin Lane Keller has shown that brands are vulnerable if they fail to constantly remind people of their "points of parity" – the must-haves, features and associations that serve as a reference for the category (see panel below).

This is the fate that has befallen Premier Inn. So successful has it been in promoting its difference that consumers can’t see beyond it. The brand has become no more than a bed to them – a great big five-storey bed beside the ring road, without any of the other hotel connective tissue that would logically go along with it, such as receptions and corridors. And hairdryers. Maybe some good sound-proofing, though, what with all that traffic, but, basically, a bed.

So the marketers at Premier Inn have changed strategy, not because the previous one was no good but because it was too good. Research will have told them that they were confronting a barrier to purchase unless people could be reassured that Premier Inn was a proper hotel, where you could have a barman serve you a cocktail at 1am and guiltily see the same person next morning doing the breakfast shift. Never mind forty winks; consumers need to know they get the 101 other things they expect from even a budget hotel when they’re wide awake. 

And the spots make this new strategy utterly, wonderfully transparent. Look: a hairdryer. Look: a bar. Look: egg, bacon, beans and a fried slice. 

But already the next problem is showing. If Premier Inn is just, well, a hotel – like Holiday Inn, or Budget Inn, or Days Inn, or the other ones with "Lodge" where "Inn" would be – why actively choose it? What’s the Premier Inn difference?

You could scream, and marketers probably do. Because the parity-difference dilemma is just one of many that marketers face every day. Mass marketing or narrow targeting? Loyalty or penetration? Price maintenance or elasticity? Retail distribution or direct sell? In virtually every case, the task is about managing both, and all the way-stations in-between, because once you focus exclusively on one extreme or the other, consumers or competitors find a way to punish you for it.

That’s why there is never any rest for marketers. It’s a constant game of adjusting the settings, pushing here, retracting there, aiming for the perfect mix as the latest sales data or research findings pour in. This is the part the textbooks – with their desiccated certainties, their ordered models – never prepare you for: the constant, swirling, sleepless shift of emphasis between competing forces.

So my target this week isn’t people who feel that ads should cover up strategy. They’re silly, but so what. It’s the people – and there are lots of them – who insist that marketing is "all about" one thing or another. All about insights, or all about innovation, or all about engagement – or all about differentiation, which even Premier Inn can’t safely bank on. 

It never is. If only it were. Sadly, it’s just their ignorance showing.

Kevin Lane Keller

Keller is the EB Osborn professor of marketing at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire.

In his 2002 Harvard Business Review paper "Three questions you need to ask about your brand", he and his co-authors challenged the conventional wisdom that brand-building was about differentiation. "Think again," he warned, citing the issues fast-food chain Subway faced when it focused on its "healthiness" difference at the expense of the category driver of "taste".

The team’s research concluded that brands needed to find ways to communicate their difference while constantly reinforcing their "points of parity" if consumers were to accept the product as a "legitimate and credible player within the category".

Helen Edwards is the former PPA busi­ness columnist of the year. She has a PhD in marketing, an MBA from London Business School and is a partner at Passion­brand.