What examples are there of a brand leader in a category successfully defending itself against a major branded competitive launch?

Brand manager, food company

What examples? How about PG Tips, Nike, Whiskas, O2, Hellmann's, Heinz Ketchup, Nescafe, Coca-Cola... Actually I find it harder, off the top of my head, to think of examples of brand leaders who failed to defend themselves successfully. But this is like the dog that didn't bark in the night. We don't pay enough attention to the extreme stability of strongly branded markets – by which I am meaning categories where competitors are mainly differentiated by branding and marketing tactics, rather than by fundamental changes in product technology. In such categories, there's either an established brand leader, or two or more brands which stay locked in a fight for leadership, and this is unlikely to change over long periods of time. It's really rather extraordinary that a brand such as Brooke Bond PG Tips has maintained brand leadership, indeed a volume share within the limits of a very few percentage points, over 40 years or so, when you consider how much the world has changed during that time. There's no a priori reason to expect this, and, repeatedly, when I've tested this assumption with students who don't know the facts, they estimate vastly more volatility.

Of course, many brand leaders have disappeared, but the story is nearly always of fundamental changes in the market paradigm, such as technological change, which the company proved unable to keep up with (think of Kodak). I really find it hard to come up with brands that have lost their dominance just because of a competitive launch. I thought of the launch of Felix in the UK cat food market, a rare example of a major change in brand paradigm not due to fundamental market changes, but then, after all these years, Whiskas is still brand leader. I thought of Magners, but its rapid early gains were never sustained when the basic innovation – cider over ice – could be so easily copied by more established brands.

If this were not true, much of the financial value attributed to brands would be misplaced. Ownership of a leading brand is a source of serious competitive advantage. They benefit not just from the powerful psychological principles of consistency and conformity (I have always bought it/ everyone buys it), from a richness of associations from past advertising and personal experience that is almost impossible to copy, but from economies of scale and, in many cases, a price premium that enables them to put more resources effectively into publicity and innovation. 'Challenger' brands may be sexy. How often do they end up doing more than challenge?

So brand leaders are inherently in a strong position and the chances of their being dislodged are slim, as long as they follow two simple principles.

Where advertising is a key factor for success, continue to spend at least your equilibrium share of voice. There is strong evidence that underspending will weaken a brand seriously in the long run against a competitor spending more than their brand share.

If the new competitor is doing something that's really changing the market – whether it's product, packaging, or advertising – copy it as quickly as you can. A strong brand will not survive forever with an inferior product or advertising, but it has some breathing space to respond. One of the first brands I worked on, Cadbury's Smash, was threatened by the heavily advertised launch of Wondermash, in a visibly superior product format. But loyalty to Smash was such that Wondermash failed to achieve trial quickly enough, and within months, Cadbury's was able to copy the new format. PG Tips refused for years to put its name on tea bags, and if it had stuck to that policy the brand would presumably no longer exist: but eventually it did, and became leader in the new sector that is now almost the whole tea market. The spectacular growth of Felix in the 1980s was driven by advertising that reflected the emotional side of pet ownership better than the brand leader did. Since then, however, Pedigree has shown that it has thoroughly learnt this lesson.

The power of brand leadership is something that is built up over the long term and needs to be nurtured continuously, rather than as a response to a competitive launch. The time to keep the roof in good repair is not when the storm starts. If you only start to think about how to defend your brand once it is under attack, it may already be too late.

If you have a question that you would like Paul Feldwick to answer, please email it to him at paul.feldwick@warc.com

This article originally appeared in the March issue of Admap. Click here for subscription information.