One of the key concepts to any brand identity initiative is helping organizations understand their differentiation. It’s one of the hardest parts of the process, but it’s also one of the most critical. As Philip Kotler, professor at the Kellogg School of Management has written, “The art of marketing is the art of brand building. If you are not a brand, you are a commodity. Then price is everything and the low-cost producer is the only winner.”
This cannot be seen more clearly than in the example of Imax theatres. Imax had a very good recession, according to an article in the January 30 New York Times.
A few years ago, Imax was deeply burdened by debt and looking unsuccessfully for investors. Cut to 2011. Global box office receipts at Imax theaters more than doubled last year to $546 million, from $270 million in 2009.
Just as other media companies have been fighting the effects of the digital revolution and piracy, Imax is benefiting from the fact that it offers a unique viewing experience – one that is difficult to replicate in other theatres or in-home. Its curved screens are massive, about 72 feet by 52 feet, although some are much larger. The film screen resolution is also higher than what is shown in traditional theatres.
The average ticket price for an Imax movie last year in the U.S. was $13, about $5 higher than the average traditional theatre ticket price, and the company was able to reduce its costs starting in 2007. That year, Imax switched to a digital projection system, replacing analog prints that had been costing about $30,000 per theatre with digital versions that cost $175 per theater. That made it possible to add more screens. By the end of 2011, the company will have doubled its number of screens worldwide to 600 total, compared to 2005 when it had about 300.
This story is one of transformation, but also a tale of best-in-class branding. It’s about a company that knew what it was, one that saw an opportunity to apply its market distinction to achieve success, and that continued to build and promote its own unique set of characteristics.
According to Richard Gelfond, CEO, “All over the world, people are willing to pay for premium content,” he said. “They want something they can’t get in the home.”
It’s a classic case study in differentiation. Imax saw the challenges of the digital era and instead of abandoning their model, they reinforced it and managed to find a way to build the brand by adding screens. Fundamentally, they were banking on the idea that consumers would pay a premium for a quality viewing experience that cannot be matched. And they were right.
Instead of chasing the problem, Imax went the other way. They embraced their big-screen brand image. The company was able to see that their strength was in the unique value proposition they offered to viewers. Knowing this clear distinction in its market provided the foundation of confidence to finance an expansion at a time that didn’t encourage a great deal of confidence in the company’s future.
Now, the company is launching a V.I.P. cinema in Moscow in April. For those who choose to relax in oversize leather chairs while watching their desired blockbuster of choice, it should be quite an experience. The cost of a ticket for one of the 80 seats: close to $100. If this one is successful, Imax has plans for more V.I.P. theatres in cities like St. Petersburg.
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It’s a scary notion, this business of standing out and being different. I know from experience that it’s far easier to use the same old borrowed language from within the industry we serve. Stepping outside of the din of a thousand agencies all barking the same thing feels like teetering on the edge of a precipice. It can be scary for people in group dynamics, and it’s proportionately even more daunting for an organization.
A consultant once shared with me that the most successful, enduring brands were the ones that created a memorable experience for its customers. He felt strongly that the best brands, the ones that resonate with us for a lifetime, are the ones that appeal to our emotions and passions, as opposed to the ones that are based on an intellectual benefit. Citing companies like Harley Davidson, Apple, Polo Ralph Lauren, among others, he argued that a brand’s differentiation was its heart and soul.
I believe it’s also what Mr. Godin was referring to by the now famous purple cow analogy.
Another consultant once said, “No company ever lost by taking the high road.” I know that can mean a lot of things, and perhaps it meant that it’s important to remain principled. Or perhaps it means that luxury market brands are always more durable in the long run.
But I like to think that he was speaking about the importance of getting above the fray, standing out from the pack and projecting an image – indeed, living an image and brand promise – that is bold, unique and clear, and that can never be mistaken with another brand. That type of recognition and distinction that sets apart high-performing brands, the kind that elevates the company well above all competitors – that’s a goal that every company should aim for.