How Popularity Can Make Brands Vulnerable

Mark RitsonApril 24, 20093 min

In 2007 14 Tesco stores closed their doors following bomb threats. Speculation grew about the motives. An initial suggestion that Tesco was being targeted by religious extremists was immediately rejected by police. Several national newspapers then suggested a link to animal liberation and pointed out that on the day of the threats there was a national day of action against Tesco by several animal rights groups.

While I do not know the identities or motivations of those who made the threats, I can provide some insight into why Tesco was targeted rather than key competitors Sainsbury’s or Waitrose. It was almost certainly not down to ethical or religious reasons, but rather a number – specifically, a proportion: 31.3%.

To understand this numerical significance, we have to look back even further. On 29 September 1982 Adam Janus, a 27-year-old postman from Arlington Heights, Illinois, dropped dead unexpectedly. Adam’s family gathered to discuss funeral arrangements. His 25-year old brother Stanley and his 19-year-old wife, Theresa, were both suffering from headaches. Stanley found a bottle of Extra Strength Tylenol in Adam’s kitchen; within minutes he and Theresa were dead.

Chicago police realized that all three victims had been poisoned. Eventually seven people died in what became known as the ‘Tylenol murders’. Investigators concluded that the culprit had visited various stores in Chicago and added cyanide tablets to bottles of Tylenol before returning them to the shelf. Why Tylenol? In 1982 it was the leading pain-relief brand in the US with a 35% market share.

New York, 1997. A lesbian activist group had grown frustrated with the dominant heterosexual images used to sell sportswear. The major brands appeared to be content to profit from their lesbian customers but unhappy to represent or recognize this patronage in their advertising. One lesbian group took matters into their own hands. Taking the Nike logo and replacing the ‘N’ with a ‘D’ it created, in its own words, ‘an alternative lesbian brand’. Hundreds of T-shirts carrying the logo were sold at gay pride events. Why was Nike selected from all the potential sportswear brands? At the time, it had a 32.8% share of the US apparel market.

Seattle, 2000. Members of US social justice group Global Exchange gatecrash Starbucks’ annual shareholders meeting, complaining that it does not do enough to support coffee farmers. Senior managers were shocked by the accusations. At the time Starbucks was widely acknowledged as one of the most ethical and environmentally aware firms in the US. It made donations to development organizations and was one of the few firms to have a corporate social responsibility division. ‘Why us?’ asked the company. At that time, Starbucks had a 43% share of the US gourmet coffee market.

Germany, 2003. After the US invasion of Iraq in March, bars and restaurants refused to sell Marlboro cigarettes as an act of defiance. Why Marlboro? Especially when they continued to sell many other US cigarette brands? With a 29.9% share of the market, Marlboro was the bestselling cigarette in Germany.

As marketers we see only the positive implications of dominant market share. But when an organization passes the threshold of 30% share, it becomes more prominent and much more vulnerable. Bomb threats, sabotage, political boycotts and protests must all be aimed at someone. Being front of mind is wonderful when the minds belong to shoppers. But that same popularity can play very differently when the minds in question belong to activists and extremists.

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