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Marketers Do It Vertically, Consumers Do It Horizontally

Clothing store interior

What do white wine, Brie, a squash racket, a Brooks Brothers suit, fresh pesto, a Rolex and a BMW have in common?

Anyone who has been hanging around US popular culture for a few decades can probably come up with the answer quite quickly; these are products that defined the infamous ‘Yuppie’ consumer who dominated the marketing airwaves back in the 1980s.

Updated versions of this stereotype roam the streets of affluent suburbs and gentrified urban areas even today. Maybe a pricey Liforme yoga mat, a Silver Cross Balmoral baby carriage (only around $4K), a smooth Cabernet with notes of cassis, cocoa and tobacco and a long finish, a Blue Apron subscription, a Daniel Wellington watch or other indulgences have replaced some of the original Yuppie items in the current pantheon, but the idea is the same.

This cluster of ostensibly unrelated products is an example of a consumption constellation: a set of symbolically related brands that jointly define a social role. But why should marketers care about an outdated media invention from the last century?

As I discuss in The New Chameleons, this consumption constellation reminds us that while marketers sell vertically, consumers buy horizontally.

Most Chief Marketing Officers (CMOs) lose sleep over market share within a product category, and they benchmark their initiatives vis a vis what their main competitors in that category do. This is vertical thinking.

Alas, this is not the way your customers think about what you sell. A marketer sells a lamp, but a consumer buys a piece of their home. A marketer sells a blouse, but a consumer buys an outfit. You get the idea. The buyer evaluates each item not just in terms of how it stacks up to other direct substitutes, but also in terms of how it harmonizes with the other products and services that collectively express their taste and social identity.

Just as the ancient Greeks invented astronomical constellations by linking unrelated stars together to create a story, so modern consumers make sense of unrelated products in terms of how they fit together to define a social role. This is horizontal thinking.

Research tells us that when consumers encounter a brand that is part of a consumption constellation, they expect to see other (functionally unrelated) brands that belong to it as well. If we prompt respondents with a constellation brand, we find that their reaction times when they are exposed to other constellation members are faster than for unrelated brands. That means that these cross-category associations have become part of a memory network. And these inter-brand associations start early; other work shows similar effects even for children.

So, what does a shift from a vertical to a horizontal perspective mean for strategic marketing thinking? After all, lifestyle marketing already is a well-oiled weapon in the marketer’s arsenal. When Courvoisier partners with Def Jam Recordings (because cognac is part of the hip-hop subculture), or Pringles creates a “Hunger Hammer” device that feeds chips into a gamer’s mouth while they play, that’s a healthy start toward linking a brand with the consumer’s broader experience.

But this common approach to lifestyle marketing barely scratches the surface of what more marketers should be doing to expand their brand equity.

Start by identifying a key social role that relies upon your brand to define its identity. Then look for products in other categories that play a similar function – even if they don’t remotely overlap with your industry vertical.

(Note: if you can’t identify a relevant constellation for your brand, this may be a sign that you’re not resonating as well as you should.)

A constellation perspective is very valuable, because if we know some of a consumer’s preferences, we can more easily predict what he or she will like in other product categories as well.

For example, Spotify now allows music lovers to “shop the look” of their favourite artists by buying their makeup straight off the streaming platform. Remember, companies may sell products, but consumers buy identities that are composed of items in many different categories.

Big Data applications offer us more opportunities than ever to predict usage in one category from purchases in others. Even a straightforward web scraping exercise can help to identify other (non-competing) brands that consumers post about when they also mention your brand.

Be consumer-centric. Let your customers tell you what other products and services they associate with people who use your brand. And don’t forget about the other potential windows you can open. Ads that accurately position a brand within a constellation context by depicting the protagonists as members of a social role category may more readily resonate with target customers, and new products may be more easily accepted if creatives pair them with existing constellation members.

Most psychographic studies, of course, already compile lists of identity markers such as political orientation, community participation and even indices of brand usage (AIOs, or Activities, Interests and Opinions). However, they are more likely to do this as a fishing expedition. Thus we know, for example, that viewership of Duck Dynasty was very highly correlated with the likelihood that the watcher voted for Donald Trump. But this kind of insight only occurs after the fact.

A product complementarity approach, in contrast, starts with a prominent social role and works backwards to identify a relevant constellation of products and services that span a range of verticals. This approach is more in sync with the current craze for defining a brand persona, and then building a marketing campaign around that mythical exemplar of your heavy user. Add in a healthy dose of data and a proactive strategy to actually engage with the other brands that pop up in that profile, and you’ve got a constellation initiative.

Don’t just think vertically when your customers think horizontally.