Fear of Focus in Branding Strategies

“The sun is a powerful source of energy. Every hour the sun washes the earth with billions of kilowatts of energy. Yet with a hat and some sunscreen you can bathe in the light of the sun for hours at a time with ill effects.

A laser is a weak source of energy. A laser takes a few watts of energy and focuses them in a   coherent stream of light. But with a laser you can drill a hole in a diamond or wipe out cancer.”

– Al Ries, Focus

This comparison is a fact of nature, but does it apply to branding strategies and marketing? Virtually all marketers would emphatically agree that focus is paramount whether we are talking about a brand strategy for a product, a service or an individual. Al Ries calls it an immutable law of branding (The Law of Contradiction); “a brand becomes stronger when you narrow its focus.” When you identify the right focus for your brand strategy, it can drive all of your company resources making them more effective.

If this all makes sense to you, then it sounds like I am preaching to the choir – but I am not. I have been in too many workshops, including my own, where companies easily buy into the principle and then resist it in practice. Do they change their minds about its importance or do they just fear it? I believe it is fear. They have focusphobia, the emotional fear of focus even though it makes total rational sense. If we can face some of its causes maybe we can relieve some of the fears and get on with life applying one of the most powerful laws of brand strategy to guide our decisions.

  1. It is not my company’s intent to be a small niche player.
    • Walmart focuses on lower prices and that drives everything they do. They currently have over 4,000 stores in the US alone, hardly a niche player. Starbucks was the first coffee shop to sell only coffee. They are hardly a small niche player today.
  2. My brand started out focused, but technology and the market is forcing a broader direction.
    • Apple has focused on “high-tech,” Disney on “fun and fantasy” and Coca Cola on “creating happiness” through incredible market and technological change. Unlike Polaroid who lost focus when their environment was changing, these brands are leaders’ world-wide.
  3. If I am too audience-focused, I might be leaving sales on the table.
    • By being focused, you are not refusing sales to people who don’t exactly fit your target. Your focus can attract customers beyond your definition simply by the clarity it creates. Without changing their focus, Starbuck’s customer base today is much broader than their original target.
  4. The market is down and/or management is always looking for ways to stretch the brand for sales increases.
    • Stretching typically dilutes the brand and never works. Walmart lost focus for a while and almost let Target take away their low price position. Southwest Airlines briefly moved away from their core essence and then returned. And then there is JC Penney. There are sales and then there is profit. Typically, a greater share of a smaller target segment is more profitable than a smaller share of a larger segment.
  5. In our company, everyone is on board with the idea of focus, but we cannot agree on what the focus should be and no one wants to stick there neck out and be wrong.
    • Finally, the source of the terror behind focusphobia is known. It is indeed emotional rather than rational.

Strategic Partners has a simple brand strategy process involving your customers and stakeholders, to reveal (not create) your true and only brand essence. It requires a lot of objective listening, distilling of information and a push for focus to uncover and clarify your brand. There is always agreement on the essence because it ultimately reflects soul of the brand that has always been there.

Maintaining a focused brand strategy with the challenges cited above will always be a formidable challenge. Focus matters. Find your brand’s path and stay with it.