Is benchmarking other brands useful?

A standard part of the branding process is to look at “best-in-class” case studies and benchmarks.  This is a combination of a competitive audit along with an audit of the brands that are most admired or selected by some other objective criteria.

Some people believe this is provides a yardstick for clients to measure their own branding against.  And for many years I was of that opinion, too.  

But then I began to observe a curious set of circumstances which make me skeptical about the usefulness.  The names of companies and brands will be left out, to protect the usual suspects.  

Let’s start with Company A.  Company A asked us to do a best-in-class benchmark study on the brand management organization and practices of 10 other companies.  My team set about that project and developed a set of benchmarks which the client could use as they were revamping their own branding organization.

About a year later one of the companies on the 10 best list requested we do a project for them.  I will call them Company B.  They asked for a similar “best-in-class” benchmarking study as was done for Company A. The only difference is that for Company B, they wanted us to study Company A as one of the 10 best list.

Not long after we were approached by Company D.  They too wanted a brand management benchmarking program that included Company A and Company B in their list of 10 best.

I am sure that you would have seen this pattern coming long before I did.  What to do when all of these world-class companies are so busy benchmarking each other?  Doesn’t it become a self-fulfilling prophecy?

These world-class companies don’t just benchmark on branding.  They hire world-famous management consulting firms to benchmark other world class firms on a variety of areas.

By this time I was feeling that the practice was like a dog chasing its own tail.  At least for the companies that have reached the top of their industry.  For new companies or smaller challenger companies the benchmarking was relatively more useful.  Those challengers still had a lot to learn from others.

More difficult was the fact that many best-in-class companies had different brand management  systems.  There was far more variability across companies than I had expected.  It turns out that what works in Company A may not work as well in Company B for any number of reasons.  Each company had enough uniqueness in their situation that the broad generalizations of benchmarking often became difficult to apply.  It became a lowest common denominator situation (admittedly of some very fine companies).

Which leads me to my own generalization:

You cannot benchmark your way into the future.

Recognize that the other best-in-class companies know as much as you know. At some point world-class companies need to wean themselves from much of this benchmarking. You need to take bold moves based on your vision of the future, not based on what your competitors may be doing.  

It is an important enough point that I will repeat it:  You cannot benchmark your way to the future.

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