The term “no man’s land” has been in use since the 14th century to describe land unoccupied or disputed because of fear and uncertainty. It’s popularity rose in use during World War I to describe the horrors that existed between the trenches of the English and the Germans.

Poet Wilfred Owen describes “No Man’s Land is pocketmarked like the body of foulest disease and its odour is the breath of cancer…No Man’s Land under snow is like the face of the moon, chaotic, crater-ridden, uninhabitable, awful, the abode of madness.”

Takeaway – You just  don’t want to be No Man’s Land.

Whether it’s in the courts, in war, on a tennis court or in business, No Man’s Land is a very precarious to be. Unfortunately, that’s where a lot of brands find themselves.

Boiling it down to the heart of the matter, modern business really has only three choices on where it can operate.  It can drive long-term sustainable value through these pursuits and only these pursuits. Trying to be good in more than one of these worlds is a recipe for disaster and ends you up in No Man’s Land.  In the past, there might have been more options – 6 or 7 avenues (eg. mass market brand, niche brand, underdog brand, geographic brand), many of those options are no longer viable given the marketplace.  Here are three core directions a company now has available to them in a modern, connected economy:

The Monopoly Brand – Buttressed by regulations, trade restrictions, capital requirements or proprietary patents, these brands insulate themselves from the market around them by effectively shielding themselves from competition. It’s a fail safe, almost guaranteed option for performance. However, a big but. Given global competition, reduction of tariffs, generic brands and free market checks and balances, these brand environments are exceedingly rare and vulnerable to single acts of change (eg. deregulation, lowering barriers, anti-competitiveness rulings). In a  fast moving world abetted by technology, watch out for the wealth created by smart companies who will jump into the innovation vacuum created by aging monopolies and drive success by being more efficient and effective than their establishment cousins. The large industries of banking, health care, energy, education and wireless industries are all good examples to watch for change here.

The Commodity Brand – these types of businesses and products are driven by the sticker tag, with the need to generate the lowest possible price at the best possible value. In truth, these types of brands have a very tough time maintaining leadership as it’s not a well-differentiated or sustainable strategy,  that is only as good as the business model that supports it. Walmart is a great example of a comm0dity brand that has stood the long test of time. An argument could be made for the Walmarts of the world to avoid wikibranding altogether and do what they’re good at – extracting cost out of the systems and lowering prices across a large selection of products.

Sounds interesting? Likely not. In the first scenario, monopoly brands are increasingly rare and in the latter, commodity brands can only have one winner, and staying on top the commodity game is like a war of attrition. Given the pressure for efficiency, commodity brand businesses are not necessarily the best places to work for either. Time and time again I have found that a company’s culture is tied to its brand environment – want to be considered a commodity employee, work for a commodity brand.

If you are looking for a different avenue than those described above, the post-modern business only has a Wikibrand direction left.

It reconciles that in a world of near perfect information and distribution and extreme market and media noise, you have to stand for something different, more innovative, more creative, more intimate, more escapist to drive superior profit performance.  In 2011, you still get to charge a premium for these merits.  Historically, investment in achieving these goals could be achieved through line extensions or new campaigns. Not now. The former is tough to breakthrough in any meaningful way and the latter now falls on deaf ears, particularly if it doesn’t jive with the actual purchase, usage and post-purchase experience.

Today, the only way to achieve this level of premiumization to your business is to engage with your audiences deeply and collaboratively. There is no plan B – you need to invest in customer-concentricity throughout the operations of your company to untap value from the energy and creativity of your customers.  They want this level of intimacy, they are demanding it and are exacting a toll on businesses and brands that don’t deliver it. In the majority of circumstances, customers and fans are spending more time with your brands than your employees likely are. What other option is left where the promise is to double if  not multiply manyfold  the level of resource you currently have t your disposal. Take this gift and run with it.

Of course, there is always No Man’s Land.

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