Origin of Brands: Discover the Natural Laws of Product Innovation and Business Survival was written for all businesses, but I have tailored my review for game developers since this is where a bunch of my investment money is currently tied up.
The Origin of Brands by Al & Laurie Ries is a contrarian argument against conventional wisdom that the battle in the marketplace takes place between brands. Examples of some battles would be Dodge Caravan vs Chevy Uplander, Domino’s Pizza vs Pizza Hut, or for those in the game industry: World of Warcraft vs Guild Wars or Supreme Commander vs Command & Conquer 3.
The book argues in 295 pages that people think category first and then brand. Their explicit example: “I’m thirsty and feel like having a beer.” The 2nd thought is: “Which beer? I think I will have Bud.” Beer is a category of drink that is popularly perceived to quench thirst. Within milliseconds the brand is invoked, but it is critical to understand that the category is the first thing that is thought about. The category address the need, while the brand address the want.
Conventional marketing will ignore the entire question of category and instead focus on brand development. “It is all about building brand name!” they say. The authors argue pretty successfully that there are hundreds of thousands of brands, most of them worthless because they belong to categories that are not useful.
Mimicking Charles Darwin’s “The Origin of Species” to justify their position they talk about how marketplaces are no different than any natural environment. A successful species (or brand) must carve out its niche. If they are part of niche that is dying then their time as a species is very limited. So they either adapt or die. For example Wang was first in the line of Word Processors which took off during the 1970s but were soon eclipsed by personal computers. The Wang name was so strongly associated with Word Processors that they failed to enter the PC market as Wang Computers. Being first is meaningless if the niche you are first in is dying.
For those in computer game development, computer games is a niche that is growing. So we need to worry about how to carve out a sub-niche that we can be first in. The authors argues that every brand needs to be either first or opposite in their niche in order to thrive. It does not mean first chronologically, but first in the mind of the target market. If you can’t be first, then you need to be different from the dominant brand. This difference will allow you to carve out your own niche. Think how Guild Wars has distinguished itself by being an Online Competitive Game and not a MMORPG like World of Warcraft. They are both fantasy worlds, but how they approach their markets is very different.
New brands are less important than new categories. These new categories arise because of divergence – the further splitting of categories. Witness the rise of “hidden object games” as a diverging category within the casual-puzzle games category. New categories arise from refinement or finer branches of categories. Just like a tree, branches get thinner and thinner, they rarely if ever converge.
Yet that is what most companies do! They hope to find financial success by combining categories in an effort to do something different. I can’t think of a better example then the game Odama, a GameCube game that combines real time strategy, voice command, and pinball. Innovative? Sure. Fun? Not really. Obviously the developers thought to themselves – let’s take this and this and this and we’ll make a million. The problem was not the talent of the developers. Heck, Odama is the probably the best ever Pinball-RTS game ever made (if its not the only one). But customers don’t think “I want to play Pinball Strategy”. They are thinking “I want an action strategy game”. Odama has a category that is completely unknown and misses why customers like established genres – they are categories that meet a need in the customer’s mind. Odama is not meeting a need.
Just like evolution, innovation or mutation does take place but it happens infrequently and only when the time is right. Being in the right place at the right time is very critical. What does this mean for Independent Game Developers? They have their work cut out for them to be successful. The “casual game” category has been in effect for the past 5 years. It has its top company “Pop-Cap” and a host of copy-cat companies. Pop-Cap is the 900 pound gorilla of casual games marketplace. They are “first” and will only be toppled by a collective failure to hold onto their spot. To compete with them would be to take what they do well, but create a different brand or identity.
The lesson that I think is relevant is the need to “Think Category” first. What is the person thinking when they are looking to play a game that you created? “Gee, I want a mindless pixel hunt or a lulling match-3 game. What should I play?” This is where your brand/game may rise to be first in their mind depending on your game’s quality, market reach, and the customer’s perception. I personally find it easier to “Think Category” instead of “find your target market”. It re-frames the question better about what the customer is looking for when you are developing your game, selling your product or promoting your service.
Asking the right questions will lead to higher rates of survival for your brand in the marketplace.
(4 stars out of 5 – possesses some very fresh ideas and creatively combines marketing with evolutionary theory)