The book suggests that it often is better, when you find yourself on the second or third rung of a ladder and someone else is firmly perched on top of it and shows no signs of climbing down to make room for you up there, to build a new ladder.
In Los Angeles, the history of KAMP-FM (97.1) is a testimony to the thrill of victory and agony of defeat as some ladders lasted and others failed is a case study of T&R’s marketing laws.
One clue that you may be stuck on too low a rung of the ladder you’re on is when in spite of your best efforts your competitor remains a strong #1 on their ladder and due to the heritage and perceptions surrounding the station it appears that there would be no unseating them from that position.
In radio, it’s not an uncommon place for the #2 on the ladder to get stuck at roughly one-half the share of the leader for an extended period of time, showing little or no growth.
With Microsoft, Apple’s Steve Jobs has specialized in building new ladders and adriotly climbing to the top of them, as have Google and Facebook, to name just three examples in media. In hard goods, once there was just diapers, now it's disposable or cloth.
Creating a new ladder means finding a new design improvement, new target, new perceptual hill.
There are two kinds of warfare (if you don't count guerrilla, which is normally not a viable long-term marketing strategy in the face of solidly branded competition): offensive attack or flanking.
Have you been unable to throw your competition off the ladder? Perhaps a flanking maneuver is in order.
As a flanker, by definition, you are not in competition with anyone. Your objective is to advance NOT on the competition BUT on an open position. In the perfect flanking maneuver, the competition is no one!
However, radio’s mixed success with Bob’s, Jack’s, Hank’s, Hal’s, Rob’s, Joe’s, etc over the last decade show that just because a new ladder works in one situation does not guarantee instant ascent to the top everywhere.
The criteria for evaluating a possible new format ladder's position:
- How big is the target audience for your new idea?
- What is the interest overall in the format and position among target listeners?
- Is the local market’s history of format changes encouraging? Or, does it show that there’s no heritage for what you want to do?
- Do you fully understand what target listeners are being served with now? Should it be very album-oriented and unfamiliar or all hit? What era is the sweet spot? Are personalities needed or not? Should jocks be laid back and ultra hip, very risque and edgy, upbeat? Do you need an expensive morning show? Is there sufficient room between the market leaders on these various existing ladders for a middle ground attitude and music mix?
- What is the music taste pattern and music preference of the market? Which approach is closer to the particular taste of your market? What has the exposure of the music been in the past two decades in the market? (going back much farther than that, with rare exceptions, will attract only an upper-demo audience) If you decide to go back farther than that, can you sell that audience you’ll draw to advertisers?
- Is the “hole” already covered in the minds of the target audience by an existing station? This one can fool you. The key is attitude, music focus and overall positioning and these ingredients are so important to the target that getting them wrong at the inception can be disastrous. You only get a chance to be new one time. And, once you have sullied your name with the target group, it is much tougher to rejuvenate the image than it is to get it right from day one.
- How will the competition react? Stations which resist over-reacting and adjusting once “a new format ladder” comes on have basically good news in store. This new station is going to attack empty territory. Everyone should give up only a little and no one loses a lot. The only exception: when a station deconstructs itself in the face of the new perceived "attack" and "defends" against it by, for example, shifting a successful classic hits or spectrum AC station from a 60’s-70's base to covering the 80’s, 90’s and now, they have basically changed format and disenfranchised their core audience. Then, it becomes a dog fight, requiring lots of marketing to re-educate the entire target audience to the completely-changed programming matrix.
React only when/if your numbers drop. Find out why you are no longer satisfying your target as successfully as you once did and correct that. Focus on attacking yourself, not the new competition.
Be clear on what's driving usage of your ladder as well as the new one.
Can both be a clear position?/Not the same sound or attitude
Both are era/genre focused/Different style, marketing strategy
Both target the same ages/Narrow targets are very different
One might only be targeting an age group who grew up in a specific decade, while another is a state of mind, a psychographic, an attitude a style of presentation and draws from a wider potential library for its music base, which enables it to avoid the potholes that any ten year period of music history contains.
The perceptual criteria listed above still apply.
Another question to ask yourself as you contemplate creating a new ladder: will it be possible to evolve over time and stay focused on a narrow age target OR grow old with its current target, depending on what the local competitive situation dictates? Or, must it, by definition, remain fixed in time so that it's target audience will grow older and older?
Can you service mark the name of your new creation? Or, does someone else also have a claim to first use of it? Can you be equally-successful with a different name or not?
The great format niches for the next decade, due to the emergence of the huge “Gen Y” age group in both 18-49 and ultimately 25-54 too are going to resonate with very different value sets than even the same formats have in the past.
So, as new “CHR” stations like KAMP-FM or country-formatted Wolves in many markets have done (and also failed to do!), it’s possible to play many of the same songs as someone atop one ladder and yet still be perceived as being on a new, better one (or NOT!), as a fresh and attractive group of listeners find themselves growing into the target.