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Laddering Technique in Brand Building: Introduction to Beginners

Dr. S. Shyam Prasad

Laddering refers to an in-depth personal interview done on one-to-one basis to figure out how consumers translate the attributes of products into meaningful associations with respect to self, following Means-End Theory(Modesto VeludodeOliveira, Akemi Ikeda, & Cortez Campomar, 2006). It is a useful technique in qualitative research technique used to get an understanding of consumers’ behaviour in buying process. In turn, Means-End Theory is a way of systematically thinking in hierarchical representation of how consumers relate product or service characteristics and consequences of use into personal self-relevant values((Leão & Mello, 2007). Reynolds (Reynolds and Gutman, 1988) propagated the idea of laddering technique in the marketing area, particularly in the field of consumer behaviour. In their opinion, people buy and consume the products because they represent something to them. According to Means-End Theory, it is possible to link sequentially in a value hierarchy, product attributes (A) to consequences of product use (C) and to individuals’ values (V), forming a chain called ladder, A-C-V sequence or means-end chain (MEC). The literature is replete with a large number of studies done from this approach involving different kinds of products.
Brand Laddering
Brand Laddering evolved from the concept of Laddering described above. Professor Kevin Keller defines Brand Laddering as “Brand Laddering involves progression from attributes to benefits to more abstract values or motivations. Laddering involves repeatedly asking what the implication of an attribute or benefit is for the customer.” He also suggests that there is a means-end chain which takes the following structure: Attribute (descriptive features) lead to benefits (meaning attached to attributes) which leads to values (enduring personal goals and motivations).
This technique of brand laddering is used in positioning of the product. Product positioning is the process of creating an image of the product in the minds of the people or in simpler terms, it is creating a perception of a product amongst the consumers. Effective product positioning ensures that marketing messages align with the target consumers and encourage them to take action. Initially when a product/brand is launched in the market, promotional activities concentrate more on its attributes and benefits. After sometime, as these aspects are established in the mind of the consumers, marketers move from product to brand, from tangible to intangible, to the meanings associated with the brand and finally into the realms of emotions. Marketers have to be careful while trying to position their brands on higher abstract concepts.
Moving from product attributes to higher values involves a series of stages. The first stage of laddering is to create brand’s association with product attributes. The focus is on to establish category membership and also to achieve parity with competitors on functional performance. Once the objectives of the first stage are accomplished, the next one involves positioning the brand on product benefits. Here the brand moves from a functional focus to the benefit focus. In the third stage which is the most critical stage of laddering process, the marketer endeavours to associate the brand to product’s abstract benefits. These are conceptual in nature and focus on a deeper and secret need of consumers much above the product benefits. Abstract benefits are often aspirational in nature. The final stage of this process is when the brand becomes synonymous with the abstract benefit. In theory, this is referred to as Brand Essence. According to Kevin Keller, the advantage of laddering is that the brand will break free from the product restrictions. That gives lot of flexibility to the brand manager.
Flexibility in extending the brand as well as in communicating.

 Figure 1    Brand Laddering
Brand Laddering is a trusted marketing technique to drive increased brand loyalty and sales (Figure 1).
Examples of Brand Laddering
The fundamental objective of brand laddering is to create icons. Brand Laddering off late is the most sought after strategy in the Indian marketing space. Let us see a couple of examples.
          i.     Initially Maggi Noodles built its brand on its product qualities like ‘easy to cook’, ‘two-minute noodles’ and taste. Later the brand shifted its promotion to health platform and positioned itself as ‘taste bhi, health bhi’, which moves the brand from attributes to benefit positioning.
        ii.     Johnson & Johnson is now synonymous with mother – child relationship.
      iii.     Raymond has moved from the basic functionality of apparels to an abstract meaning of ‘A complete man’ and ‘Feels like heaven’.
      iv.     Nike personifies authentic athleticism.
        v.     Harley Davidson is synonymous with masculinity, free spirit and rebelliousness.
Conditions for Successful Laddering
Laddering is a very attractive marketing strategy and powerful one to keep the competition away. However, every brand that attempts it may not succeed. It requires some amount of preparation for its success. Unless the brand succeeds in building its association with the functional attributes, the laddering may not come off successfully. Consumers have to climb the steps of the ladder from one stage to the other with ease. If a brand tries to ladder up without establishing its functional expertise, consumers may not believe in the brand’s claim and the technique will fail. The brand should first establish it Points of Parity (POP) in its category at par with its competitors and establish itself in terms of performance. Only then it will succeed in its laddering technique.
Another requirement that should be kept in mind is that the abstract attribute should be relevant to the brand, like Nike and Athletics and Dove and Beauty are connected with each other seamlessly. This is where, in my opinion, brand Maruti is stuck up. Maruti and Economy is so strongly connected that the company is struggling to establish Maruti’s association with Luxury.
For a successful laddering process, begin with the end in mind. According to Stephen R Covey, the second habit of highly effective people is that they should find out what they want to be when they grow up. I would say the same thing holds true for an effective and successful brand too. The firm should know the goal where it is driving the brand. This knowledge will help the firm to focus on what the brand wants to be and this may well be the plan for success. Thus at the beginning of the laddering exercise, the marketer has to decide the last stage to be achieve, i.e. the brand essence. This is because the abstract benefit/s are going to be in for a long term and sometimes are permanent. It may become extremely difficult to change the brand essence later as is being experienced in case of Maruti.
Parting words
One might be tempted to think that having successfully built a brand on laddering, that is the end. But that’s not true. The brand should continue to focus on its functional attributes. This exercise could be carried out in tandem with other stages of laddering exercise. Laddering down may be warranted in case of change of consumer’s perception or the introduction of product with new features that tries to unsettle it. In such a scenario, the brand should reinforce its functional expertise to the consumers.
Leão, A. L. M. D. S., & Mello, S. C. B. De. (2007). The means-end approach to understanding customer values of a on-line newspaper. BAR. Brazilian Administration Review, 4(1), 1–20.
Modesto Veludo‐de‐Oliveira, T., Akemi Ikeda, A., & Cortez Campomar, M. (2006). Laddering in the practice of marketing research: barriers and solutions. Qualitative Market Research: An International Journal, 9(3), 297–306.

Reynolds, Thomas J. Gutman, J. (1988). Laddering theory, method, analysis and Interpretation. Journal of Advertising Research, 28, 11–31.