Marshmello, Liquid Expectations, and The Obsolescence of Brand Positioning

10.7 million live “attendees,” and over 41 million views of the official recap

When Marshmello played a live show to nearly eleven million people in the virtual environs of Pleasant Park in Fortnite back in February, it reverberated throughout the music world. But the impact of this moment goes far beyond the music industry, as this was more definitive evidence that brand positioning as we’ve known it is perilously obsolete.

Re-Defining Concerts and Merch

To be clear, the implications of the Marshmello moment are terrifying for the traditional music industry. If I were Live Nation, nowhere near the promotion for a concert that had eleven million attendees, I would seriously shook by what happened at Pleasant Park. If I were Bravado, nowhere near the huge revenue driven by the digital merch sold for and at that gig, I would be equally concerned.

But moments like these, and what they represent as new paradigms for marketing, are much bigger than a PR blip for the music industry. Moments like these fundamentally re-shape a generation’s expectations moving forward.

If you’re 10 years old, there’s a good chance that the Marshmello gig will be the “first concert” that you’ll be talking about in corporate icebreakers in fifteen years time. It shapes how that 10 year old will think about concerts and merch every day from now on. The Marshmello show wasn’t an event, it was a new paradigm… not just for the world of music, but for the broader world of brand experiences and competitive strategy. And it is the nature of how consumer expectations are re-defined today that drives the perilous obsolescence of traditional brand positioning approaches.

Liquid Expectations and Paradigm Shifts

Four years ago, Baiju Shah and I wrote a piece entitled “Liquid Expectations” that sketched out how the experience a consumer has in any product category affects the expectations that are set for every other product category. The piece we wrote had some nice pick-up by The Economist and others back then, and it’s fun to see that it’s still being referenced.

Our thesis was that expectations that consumers have for brands and experiences are increasingly liquid; and the lines that traditionally define product categories are increasingly meaningless.

Visually, it broke out like this:

This originally appeared in The Economist’s website in May, 2015 and was subsequently named a ‘Best of 2015’ article by the Economist editors.

At the core of understanding competitive strategy, there are of course the direct competitors that sell products that “directly” compete with yours (think Fortnite vs. Minecraft). These direct competitors are still foundational to the understanding of competitive strategy, as if you can’t beat your most basic competitors you’re not going to go far. But the issue with many brands is that they seldom understand their competition more broadly than this.

As we found four years ago and is even more the case now, brands increasingly need to be mindful of their experiential competitors: those competitors that sell experiences that replace the need for yours (even if these brands are not traditionally considered to be anywhere close to the same industry or category). When Netflix states in their earnings letter that they “compete with (and lose to) ‘Fortnite’ more than HBO” it is because Fortnite is an experiential competitor for the attention minutes that would otherwise be spent with Netflix or any other form of entertainment. Indeed, it’s hardly a stretch to say that every brand, entertainment brand or not, is in competition for the same attention minutes: as a consumer you don’t schedule your day by product category, and so as a marketer it’s foolish to think that you only compete for attention against brands in the same “category” as yours.

But what’s most important, and least understood, in today’s world of marketing are the perceptual competitors who change the expectations that customers have for every brand they encounter in their lives. This isn’t just about Fortnite creating a new paradigm for ticketing and merch companies; this is about Fortnite changing the expectations that consumers have for everyone from retailers to grocery stores. It is this crucial importance of perceptual competitors that makes brand positioning so perilously obsolete today.

The Fatal Flaw of Traditional Brand Positioning: Your “Frame of Reference”

This format, more or less, has been the framework for brand positioning for decades.

As seen above, the traditional linchpin of brand positioning has been the identification of your “category” and resultant frame of reference. The thinking was that in order to win the game, you had to first define where you play.

A simply logical as this may seem, in a world in which traditional product categories are increasingly irrelevant, defining your frame of reference creates strategic tunnel vision. When consumers compare your brand experience to that of every brand, you can’t segment consumer expectations… you can only ignore the breadth of expectations that consumers truly have.

A “properly” defined frame of reference for Live Nation would lead them to schemes to try and deal with the secondary ticket market, and would lead Netflix to chase Game of Thrones. But this tunnel vision would prevent both brands from realizing that their greatest threat was in fact Fortnite.

Defining Yourself by What You Re-Define

Contrast the tunnel vision of brand positioning’s traditional frame of reference with Amazon, from day one, seeking to be earth’s most customer-centric company. The illustrative power of this Amazon example isn’t just the foresight to know that what they were doing had little to do with books per se. Rather, the true power of Amazon’s mission was that they didn’t attempt to position themselves in a static world. Rather, their strategy was centered on the change they sought to effect.

In a world of liquid expectations, I believe the most powerful way to chart your course as a brand is to define yourself by what you seek to experientially re-define for consumers… all consumers. Rather than beginning with a misleading analysis of your “direct competitors,” start instead with how you will cause a ripple amongst all of your perceptual competitors.

Forget how you will position youself within the soon-to-be past, and instead focus your energy on how you will transform the expectations consumers will have for future generations. The fun bit is figuring out how you will create your version of a paradigm shattering Marshmello concert.

Father, husband, builder, strategist, optimist. Inspired by music, insatiably curious, and always in search of adventure.