Why being a middle-of-the-road brand sucks

middle childMiddle children complain they don’t get the same love and attention their younger or older siblings did. And they’re right because they weren’t the first. Or the last.

The problem is when you pursue two opposing sides, the sum is the middle. Middle is an imitator, not a leader. It’s the safe, uninspiring grey space that no one seems to remark about. A bit like Huawei, Holden or Holland.



Moa Beer seems to be sitting in the middle trying to be a craft beer whilst it makes mass market moves like sponsoring the NZ Olympic Team, securing Air NZ Koru lounge beer fridges (till recently anyway) or using “celebrity” endorsements like Shane Warne (WTH?). These are classic plays from the big brand playbook. Even their pricing seems middle-ish. It’s not the cheapest but it’s not the most expensive either.

Maybe they’re clever creating a category all of their own? Or applying a wine strategy to a beer brand? I’m not sure. I and many others loved their early marketing because it was edgy and challenging but more recently it’s lost its edge pursuing volume. Let’s hope they don’t live up to their namesake.

Moa pub poster

Looking across category, Panhead and Garage Project (last year’s Deloitte Fast 50 winner) seem to be targeted in their distribution and clear about their positioning. Look at their design, Beervana presence and the fact that they were successful enough to catch the eye of new owners Lion (proving yet again the old adage “if you can’t beat ‘em, buy ‘em”). These beer brands have legions of passionate customer fans  because they are clear on who they are and what they stand for. Meantime, WilliamsWarn are now coming in underneath craft beer brands encouraging everyone for a couple of grand to become a master brewer just as Disruption Guru Clay Christensen told us.

The problem with being a middle of the road brand is that you get pressure from both sides. Take Tesco in the UK. Its margins and viability are under threat from price fighters Aldi and Lidl at one end whilst Waitrose, Sainsbury and M&S are holding their ground at that other end appealing to the higher value customer. Countdown is the same here in NZ. Not Pak n’ Save but hardly New World either.

Honda are in the middle. Same with Holden. When you sit in the middle of the pack it’s hard to set the world on fire (can you remember the last time you strained your head to check out the latest Honda or Holden in traffic?). V Energy drink looks like a middle brand whilst Red Bull stays firmly out on the edge like Felix Baumgartner and his Red Bull sponsored outer space sky dive. Truly remarkable with 8million YouTube views.

Some argue Fonterra is stuck in the middle being a whole milk powder volume producer whilst trying to do value add at the same time in the same body. Other middle of the road brands examples include Nokia who played the middle and look how that went for them. Google + looks pretty middle of the road too.

Closer to home, look at those advertising, marketing or design agencies that espouse the importance of point of differentiation to all their clients yet can’t apply this basic principle to their own business model. Ironically, by striving to be different they end up looking the same. And when you choose to work with anyone on anything that doesn’t help make you different. It makes you middle. And generic.

Taking the middle road is playing it safe in the comfort zone which is where average lives. And who likes average? No one likes to describe themselves as an average driver, parent, coach or New Zealander. We find it insulting (just like a farmer would if you mention the word average – hint: don’t try this down on the farm). Most of us like to think of ourselves as different and a little bit unique and special in some way.

Many argue you cannot occupy two sides and instead only dominate one as Professor of Agribusiness, Hamish Gow from Massey University reminded us of at last year’s 2016 National Horticultural Fieldays. The Value Discipline Triangle from Harvard University academics Treacy & Wiersma (1993) makes a case for this by suggesting you can only focus your business model on one side. Doing two or all three lands you in the middle, commonly known as no man’s land. Or as Treacy & Wiersma suggest: “successful brands excel in one primary discipline or boundary.”
value discipline triangle

So do your homework, pick a clear market position and stick with it.

If you don’t, you might find yourself in the middle of the road about to get run over.


One Response to “Why being a middle-of-the-road brand sucks”

Leave a Reply