Owned for many years by H&R Block, CompuServe was the first major commercial online service in the United States. It was founded in 1979, dominated the field in the 1980s and was still a major player through the mid-1990s. Prodigy, the second major online service provider, was founded in 1984 as a joint venture between CBS, IBM and Sears. It offered its subscribers access to a broad range of networked services, including news, weather, shopping, bulletin boards, games, polls, expert columns, banking, stocks, travel, and a variety of other features. In 1990, CompuServe had 600,000 subscribers and Prodigy had 465,000 subscribers. But then AOL entered the scene and quickly dwarfed both companies. Begun as Control Video Corporation and focusing on games using specific computer platforms in the early to mid-1980s, the company altered its strategy over time and changed its name to AOL in late 1989. Positioned as an online service for people unfamiliar with computers, at its peak, AOL had more than 30 million subscribers worldwide. How did it do this?
AOL was infamous for saturating the market with its FREE CD-ROMs and diskettes containing computer software for accessing the America Online service in the late 1990s and early 2000s. I recall personally receiving at least 20 of these disks during that time period through multiple distribution vehicles. Each one offered 700 or 1000 free hours of service. They featured such a wide variety of designs (more than 4,000) that people began collecting the disks. This is the momentum that pushed AOL over the top. (Unfortunately, AOL began a steady decline soon after its merger with Time Warner in 2001.)
Amazon.com also experienced huge momentum that has brought the company to its current size today. It was the darling of the business press and rode a wave of increasing publicity throughout the late 1990s and early 2000s. In 1999, Time magazine named Jeff Bezos “Person of the Year” for Amazon.com’s pioneering and popularizing of online shopping. While Amazon.com’s business plan allowed for four to five years of red ink before it became profitable, its constant publicity built its brand name quickly not only among the business community but also with the general public.
When I took over as marketing vice president at Element K, a leading e-learning company, our intent was to be one of the first companies to “cross the finish line” in the very new and crowded e-learning space. In less than two years, we emerged from one of thousands of e-learning companies to one of the top four due to aggressive and unrelenting awareness building among our primary target audience, chief learning officers of Fortune 1000 companies.
These are three examples of brand momentum, something we measure in our brand equity studies. Think of brand momentum as the general perception that the brand is an exciting up-and-coming brand, a brand to be watched and a brand to be tried. It is the opposite of a legacy brand that “rests on its laurels.” A brand with momentum will receive high scores on the following measures:
- I seem to hear and see more about this brand lately
- I feel like this brand is changing for the better
It will also be perceived to possess the following personality attributes:
- Up and coming
- Leading edge
And not the following personality attributes:
We have found that brands that are perceived to be vital and possess positive momentum will have sales that exceed those predicted by purchase intent scores, while legacy brands that are perceived to be the opposite will have sales that lag those predicted by purchase intent scores.
The trick is to create the perception of strength, vision, forward momentum, popularity and thought leadership without breaking the bank or running out of capital. This can be best accomplished by laser like focus on the primary target audiences and then through aggressive and relentless communication to those people. Investing resources in substantial public relations efforts, keeping industry and financial analysts and other industry experts well informed, writing white papers, authoring popular blogs, dominating the most important industry trade shows and conferences and other such activities are critical to building and maintaining this momentum, as is delivering legendary service whenever possible to generate “buzz.”
In a way, this goes back to the evergreen advice, “Fake it until you make it” or “Act as though you are what you aspire to be.” That is, be confident and assume the leadership role in the industry even if yours is the smallest organization in the industry. Perceived momentum creates the conditions for further momentum. That is at the core of the concept of momentum. A caution: an organization will not survive in the long run if it is all hype and no substance. Ultimately, you will need to bring something unique, fresh or superior to the market, but the perception of momentum will attract more confidence in and resources to your organization while it is on its path to industry leadership in a crowded market.