Many years ago, Volvo was looking for a new marketing strategy to make its cars seem more exciting. Well known for making the world’s safest cars, often favored by middle-aged people, Volvo decided to put out a new message to the market: Volvos can also be fast and fun!
In other words: Volvos are safe, but safe doesn’t have to mean boring. In fact, you can even drive your Volvo a bit recklessly!
The result turned out negatively for Volvo. They diluted their strong brand image about safety first in favor of attempting to reach a market segment that they had never attracted before. Fast cars are Porsche, Ferrari, Jaguar and several other brands. Volvo is not known to be on that list.
Volvo was trying out what we can call “Opposite Branding,” a tactic whereby marketers force a well-known brand into new territories, often because of a lack of knowledge regarding the importance of brand uniqueness. Many brands are still making the same mistake today. This usually happens when a marketer detects a weak spot in the brand map and decides to fill in the gap by moving the brand into a different zone, whether or not it belongs there.
Successful branding requires letting go of the desire to appeal to every customer who could (in theory) buy your brand. When we look at strong brands, we instantly relate to a tight set of brand associations. Safe and fast are not associated with a single brand, nor are healthy and candy. This same concept applies to why Donald Trump has a hard time convincing people that he is a stable genius. It’s because of how we perceive him: He will never be numero uno on the list of those we find calm, brilliant, polite, kind, graceful, and sympathetic.
The problem in opposite branding is that people don’t believe in opposites existing within a single brand. We perceive brands; we do not acquire a brand image from logic and stated facts. We relate a brand to what we believe is true, no matter what we are being told.
Currently, opposite branding has become evident at Mars, a world marketing leader in the field of chocolate bars. They have brought to the market peculiar versions of their well-known chocolate bars, the new products being named Mars Protein and Snickers Protein:
I doubt that healthy people will choose these candy bars for their protein content. It also seems unlikely that those looking for chocolate candy will choose Mars Protein or Snickers Protein to feel less guilty for indulging in sweet treats. Neither group will select these products, largely for the same reasons car shoppers looking for fast sports cars don’t select Volvo. There will always be some other chocolate bar or some other protein bar that will have a stronger appeal in its respective market. Consumers seeking a great chocolate bar will always select their old favorite, and those wanting protein will choose a nutrition bar.
It is natural for a strong brand to have weak spots. No brand can claim preeminence in every corner of a broad market segment. That is why fast and safe cars aren’t part of one single brand that dominates the automobile market. That is also why there is no healthy and sugar-filled food brand. No one brand can be both yin and yang, both best and worst, or farthest left and farthest right simultaneously.
On the other hand, if Mars Inc. wants to expand to a different segment, they have the marketing power to build a new, leading protein bar brand that will give customers the best (and the most) protein available, combining an appealing taste and healthy ingredients. Mars could excel with its new product and build the next big family of bars that will make people feel less guilty for snacking.
Mixing these two different brand-segments into one is not what the market wants. It will only dilute the brand image that Mars Inc. has as a market leader in candy bars.