Why Seeking Untapped ‘White Space’ Is a Dangerous Trap for Marketers

Appeal to customers' universal needs with one-of-a-kind creative

Even if you've only been working in advertising for a week, you've probably heard, or maybe even said, "What we need to do is find the white space."

Jonathan Cude Alex Fine

Yes, of course, the white space. The space no one else owns, that's just sitting there, like a pristine, snow-covered field in the upper right-hand quadrant of an X–Y axis, waiting to be tapped for its unfulfilled potential!

The problem is, there is no such thing as white space. Because there's no white space when we're talking about human beings and the reasons they want certain things.

Remember Maslow's hierarchy of needs? Essentials like breathing, food, water, sex and sleep made up the base of the pyramid, with things like security, health, friendship and family in the middle, followed by self-esteem, confidence, morality, creativity and spontaneity at the top. 

But whether the reference is Maslow or something like the more recent Elements of Value Pyramid, there are only a certain number of things people really want (or need) from life—let alone from a brand. The strongest brands get this. That's why they connect what they do with fulfilling at least one of those needs. It's pretty tough to satisfy a desire no one has. But a lot of money's been spent trying.

It makes sense, though, that brands feel pressure to differentiate. All brands want to stand out, get noticed and not get lost in the ever-growing clutter. So they go searching for white space in their positioning. Typically, the thinking goes something like this: If the category leader stands for X, then no other brand in the category can stand for X and must, therefore, stand for Y or Z.

This is a trap.

The reason the leader is the leader is not that they have a magical positioning. It's that they own the main reason people come to the category in the first place. So when a competitor attempts to counter by moving to untapped white space, they immediately become less relevant. Or said another way, no one gives a crap and the leader stays on top.

Even disruptive brands like Uber and Airbnb haven't uncovered white space. They've succeeded by fulfilling the exact same need for consumers that taxis and hotels do—with added value and innovation. The telegraph. The telephone. The internet. Three powerful innovations that all serve the same basic desire—connection.

By now you may be asking how all brands can stand for the same things. If they all connect to the most obvious, dominant emotional driver in a category, there's no reason to choose one brand over another, right?

Brands have to stand out in an obvious crowd—not stand alone in an unusual spot that no one cares about. There's a reason you wouldn't put a spaghetti sauce brand over on the aisle with the disinfectant brands just to help it stand out. It needs to be a part of the spaghetti sauce crowd without getting lost in it.

This is why creativity is the most powerful force in our industry.

Was Nike the only brand that could connect to the competitive spirit in every athlete? No, but by showing how the passion and drive of the world's best athletes could live in all of us, they owned it in a particular way that tapped into the sense of achievement we all want to feel.

Same for Dove. They had no inherent, unique quality that gave them permission to own beauty. But they've done it by provocatively challenging our assumptions about what beauty means. And we all want to feel beautiful.

Allstate and Mayhem. You get insurance because bad stuff can happen. Other insurance brands have made this point. But the simplicity and humorous drama of the execution separated it while connecting to the feeling of security we all want.

How a brand makes the connection to what people want is what distinguishes it.

This is where you should look for white space. An innovative, interesting, hilarious, spine-tingling, never-been-done-before approach—that's the trick. As long as it connects the brand to one of the relatively few things people actually care about.

If this doesn't work, there are two reasons why: one, it did work and the product or service isn't very good—nothing kills a bad product faster than good advertising. (Bill Bernbach said that.) Or the connection to what people really want was missed.

There are only a finite number of things people want in life. For brands to be successful, they must connect to those things in an emotionally powerful and resonant way. Otherwise, they'll languish in the white space waiting for someone to show up.

Jonathan Cude (@jcude) is chief creative officer at McKinney.

This story first appeared in the December 12, 2016 issue of Adweek magazine.

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