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White space: brand problem, or brand opportunity?

The term “white space” can mean a wealth of different things. For designers, it’s a beautiful thing: white space on a page separates the elements, improves readability and creates balance.

For brands, we believe “white space” has different connotations altogether, one of gaps in a brand’s portfolio. That might mean an entirely new market, a place that offers no competition, a space in an existing market or product range, or simply an opportunity to stand out in a crowded playing field.

The question is, should this white space be seen as a problem for brands, or as an opportunity? Identifying white space is one thing: filling it is another, and how this space is filled depends on individual brands.

The opportunity

Let’s use the soft drinks market as an example. This market sector often demonstrates emerging white spaces, the most recent being the premium soft drinks category (which we’re tipping for disruption in 2017). Opportunities are rife in both the home market and amongst licenced retailers.

A gap in folio or product line offers plenty of opportunity for heritage brands (who may wish to expand to fill the space); for challenger brands (who may be able to rebrand to fit perfectly into the space); and for totally new brands (such as Gunna, with its low sugar selling point and distinctive brand identity), who can start with a blank slate to get it just right.

The problem

While white space presents an opportunity for some, it can also be a problem for others. The two biggest players in the soft drinks market – Britvic and Coca-Cola – make up a third of the entire category in the UK, and both these brands innovate to position themselves strongly for new market trends. To combat criticism over sugar levels, for example, Britvic has removed varieties of Fruit Shoot and Robinsons that contained added sugar, while Coca-Cola launched the low-calorie Coca-Cola Life in 2014.

When it comes to new white spaces, though, these heritage players can often struggle to adapt because the brand image they’ve worked so hard to create simply isn’t flexible enough. It’s the reason Coca-Cola Life hasn’t worked, and the reason Coca-Cola introduced a masterbrand strategy to play on their strengths rather than trying to fill white space with inappropriate noise.

This isn’t to say that heritage brands should ignore white spaces, far from it. But they need to think harder than simply throwing chia seeds on an existing product and calling it a health range.

The solution

It’s all about power…

We’ve covered the difference between hard and soft power in a previous article. The latter refers to minor tweaks, such as tonal, typographical or visual branding changes, that are more cost effective and involve less risk of alienating existing customers.

With a tweak to design or tone – a soft power solution – a brand can reinvent itself to fit perfectly within this white space. It’s happening in the premium soft drinks market with brands such as Cawston Press, who have gone from fruit juice specialist to low sugar, premium canned carbonated soft drink producers.

Hard power, on the other hand, involves making wholesale changes, such as adding new product lines, altering recipes or adding new distribution channels – or even creating an entirely new brand. It’s a costly business that could well backfire, as we’ve already seen before in the soft drinks category.

When Coca-Cola launched Dasani water in the UK back in 2004, the company had spent millions of pounds on bringing it to market. A successful launch in the US five years earlier would, they thought, forecast similar success in the UK – but they hadn’t banked on a backlash after it was discovered that Dasani was simply purified tap water with added minerals. The brand had attempted to shoehorn its existing brand equity into a brand new category with a different approach – and even its positive brand image couldn’t make Dasani a success.

Coca-Cola’s main competitor, Pepsi, has also suffered from failed hard power approaches. While energy drinks are now big business for those looking for a morning caffeine hit without coffee, Pepsi A.M. was the brand’s attempt to create a brand new product to fill a white space. In the late 1980s, they’d realised (without extensive research), that some young people were choosing cola rather than coffee in the mornings, and created their new beverage to fill this need. Featuring 28% more caffeine than its regular variety, Pepsi A.M. was an attempt to fill a white space that didn’t actually exist: those who drank cola in the mornings were happy with existing products, and the product name may well have held consumers back from drinking it in the afternoon.

Should you identify white space in categories that your brands represent, the first question to ask is, “Could I compete successfully?” If the answer is no, steer well clear: shoehorning your way in could well cause more harm than good, and cost you dearly in terms of time, resources and investment. If the answer is yes, think carefully before you make that leap, and determine whether hard or soft power is the way to go.

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