‘Mind the Gap’ to Create Brand Advantage

October 16, 2011 | blog | By Mike Sullivan

I can’t recall when I first heard the expression, “mind the gap,” but its origins apparently trace back to a 60s-era warning posted for London train passengers stepping from trains to station platforms. Makes sense. Gaps of all varieties can cause big problems. But, the flip side of a problem is an opportunity.


Take, for instance, the gap that often exists between the interests of companies and those of their customers. Companies are interested in making money as a means for survival, and customers are interested in saving money for reasons akin to survival. That’s a gap. And poor minding of that gap by some companies and even entire categories creates interesting opportunities for astute business leaders with good intentions.

The retail mattress category provides a wonderful example of poor gap minding. Mattresses are expensive and people often regard them as a grudge purchase. Most aren’t excited about dropping a grand or more on the latest in sleep technology. Abundance, low interest, and scant product differentiation conspire to commoditize mattresses. It’s a circumstance that turns a gap into a gulf, as retailers must charge what the product is worth and shoppers recoil from sticker shock. The category has responded to its gap by creating intentional confusion to make it difficult – if not impossible – for consumers to comparison shop across retail stores. This is why you’ll never find the same mattress manufacturer model sold under the same name by more than one retailer. Manufacturers change the model names so shoppers can’t easily shop and compare to better inform their buying decisions.

The mattress industry minds its gap using trickery to tip the scales to the favor of those who represent their products at retail. Many mattress retailers employ similarly unscrupulous sales practices, leaving the entire category bathed in a haze whose origins are as suspicious as the funky odors occasionally experienced in crowded spaces. We call this the “category overlay.” The category overlay may be negative, but it can often be turned to a single company’s advantage. Making that happen requires the courage of conviction for doing things the right way. Turning a negative category overlay into a unique brand advantage requires much more than a revitalized commitment to operations or a new marketing push. It calls for a business strategy designed to directly oppose the category norm that supports the imbalance created to privilege the interests of business over buyers.

Sleep Experts is a mattress retailer that has succeeded in correcting the category imbalance by taking an entirely different approach to minding the gap. While Sleep Experts’ leadership has no control over the industry’s product naming practices, it has successfully reformed the customer experience at retail and has injected authentic balance back into the equation. The significant buyer confusion surrounding the acquisition of a product purchased on average just once every eight years favors sellers, which is one more reason mattress manufacturers perpetuate the advantage with funky product naming schemes. Despite this, Sleep Experts was able to make just one critical strategic move to restore balance and clearly signal it’s fundamental commitment to the spirit of fair exchange.

Instead of offering an industry standard 30 or 45-day return option (filled with all sorts of loopholes favoring retailers), Sleep Experts gives customers an astounding one full year to return a mattress they don’t love. They call it the “One-Year Love Your Mattress Guarantee.”

What does this have to do with correcting the confusion created by tricky product naming? Nothing. Instead, it’s a brilliant retail response for eliminating the tension created by that confusion. Confusion causes people to make mistakes, and nobody wants to make a mistake with $1,000 hard-earned dollars by pulling the trigger on the wrong mattress. That’s the kind of mistake they’ll get to sleep on for many years. Sleep Expert’s convention-busting return policy relieves the buyer of the fear of making such a mistake by shifting the risk of a poor choice from the buyer to the seller. Buyers have a year to consider the wisdom of their choice. Shoppers appreciate the move, and have rewarded Sleep Experts with record-breaking sales. The company is privately held and specific results are confidential. Let’s just say they’ve been eye-popping and growing year-over-year.

Here’s the rub. A gap-minding move like this can only work if it is inspired by apurpose-based business philosophy. Where there is no authentic intention to serve people honorably tactics like this blow up. Sleep Experts has a well-known deep commitment to ensuring customers get the product they need. It’s been a leadership mandate since the company was founded and is endemic in the company’s hiring, training, and operating practices. In a word, it’s their culture. To this point, national competitors have responded by matching the Sleep Expert’s one-year return policy only to reel it back after being brutalized by returns.

Creating real competitive advantage often starts with an honest appraisal of what’s wrong with a category. Where is the customer getting the shaft? Where is there an imbalance? When you find the answer to that question the next move is to figure out how – and weather or not – you can mind the gap.

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Mike Sullivan

President at LOOMIS, the country’s leading challenger brand advertising agency


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