The Birth Order Theory For Brand Positioning, Parts I & II

Out of the 25 first astronauts in space, 23 were First-born; the remaining two were only children.

Most of the great comedians from Chaplin to DeGeneres are the youngest siblings in their families.

Middle children often report feeling neglected, scorned.

First-born siblings frequently suffer back and neck pain as a result of their constant striving for perfection.

The idea that character traits and behaviors are heavily influenced by birth order was set forth over one hundred years ago by Austrian Psychotherapist, Alfred Adler. Birth Order Theory remains widely accepted, though controversial, in modern psychology. While exceptions to the Birth Order Theory are prevalent, the value of the rule proves successful time and time again. For a modern primer on the subject, I recommend The Birth Order Book: Why You Are Who You Are, by Dr. Kevin Leman.

I put little stock in astrology to guide my daily dealings, but I make frequent business decisions and even recommendations on brand positioning, based on the power of birth order and its significance in our lives.

“If they were drowning to death, I’d put a hose in their mouth,” is credited to Ray Kroc, speaking of his business rivals.

You may feel differently about competition, but for your safety and survival in the world of business, let’s assume someone somewhere might feel this way that about you.

The story is as old as Cain and Abel, long before we had Sun Tzu’s war methods to adapt to corporate strategy.

Much ink has been spilt by great intellectuals for the cause of market positioning in recent decades. For a brush-up on the topic, see the works of Ries & Trout, 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing, Positioning: The Battle for your Mind, or Eating the Big Fish: How Challenger Brands Can Compete Against Brand Leaders, by Adam Morgan.

Birth Order Theory trumps all of these. While helpful in tactics and application, market positioning strategies are all derivative of this primal reality, baked into the nature of all living things, and repeated throughout history in all competitive arenas, including statecraft, military strategies, sports, and marketing.

However dark, we can look to nature for the true application of our premise. See Siblicide in Humans and Other Species, by Catherine A. Salmon.

“Sibling conflict is shared across a wide variety of species, including humans. It is an expected process because offspring compete for dominance as well as food resources (most common in nonhuman species) and also for parental attention, money, and other personal resources in the case of human children.”

Whether you prefer to look at instances of siblicide in nature or the softer Birth Order Book by Leman, Birth Order Theory is nature’s guide to brand positioning.

For our application to brand positioning, here are a few key definitions, taken from Leman’s text:

“First-borns bask in their parents’ presence, which may explain why they sometimes act like mini-adults. First-borns are diligent and want to be the best at everything they do. They excel at winning the hearts of their elders.

As the leader of the pack, First-borns often tend to be: Reliable, Conscientious, Structured, Cautious, Controlling, Achievers.”

Middle Child
“The middle child often feels left out and a sense of, ‘Well, I’m not the oldest. I’m not the youngest. Who am I?’ says therapist Meri Wallace. This sort of hierarchical floundering leads middle children to make their mark among their peers, since parental attention is usually devoted to the beloved First-born or baby of the family.

In general, middle children tend to possess the following characteristics: People-pleasers, Somewhat rebellious, Thrives on friendships, Has large social circle, Peacemaker.”

“Youngest children tend to be the most free-spirited due to their parents’ increasingly laissez-faire attitude towards parenting the second (or third, or fourth, or fifth…) time around.

The baby of the family tends to be: Fun-loving, Uncomplicated, Manipulative, Outgoing, Attention-seeker, Self-centered.”

For our purposes, we will suspend discussion of Only Children, who share many of the leadership qualities of a typical First-born. We will also depart from the nuances of sibling sets larger than three, as well as exceptions like the impact of extended gaps between siblings, blended families, implications of being First-born by sex, but not by family, etc.

For our working theory, we will only concern ourselves with two groups:

1. First-born
2. Last-born

If you are the market leader, we will operate under the assumption that you are a First-born.

If you are anything other than the market leader, we will operate under the assumption that you are a Last-born.

The reason we will not deal with the distinctions between Second-borns, Middle Child, Last-borns, etc. is that in every case, everyone who comes after is a reaction to the first. Leman refers to as the “Branching-Off Effect.”

The Branching-Off Effect

“When talking about the Middle Child, the most critical factor is the branching-off effect that is always at work in the family. This principle says the Second-born will be most directly influenced by the First-born, the Third-born, will be most influenced by the Second-born, and so on. By ‘Influenced,’ I simply mean that each child looks above, sizes up the older sibling, and patterns his life according to what he sees.

The Second-born has the First-born for his role model, and as he watches the First-born in action, the Second-born develops a style of life of his own. Because the older brother or sister is usually stronger, smarter, and obviously bigger, the Second-born typically shoots off in another direction. If, however, he senses he can compete with his older sibling, he may do so. If he competes successfully enough, you can have a role reversal, something we discussed earlier in the variables of birth order.

Any time a Second-born child enters the family, his lifestyle is determined by his perception of his older sibling. The Second-born may be a pleaser or an antagonizer. He may become a victim or a martyr. He may become a manipulator or controller. Any number of lifestyles can appear, but they all play off the First-born. The general conclusion of all research studies done on birth order is that Second-borns will probably be somewhat the opposite of First-borns.”

Let us get to business. If you are first to market, or currently are winning your category by market share, you are a First-born. Market share is more significant than the time of entry. So if your competitor was established ten years before you, but you occupy the dominant seat in your category, the mantle falls to you to act as First-born with all of its responsibilities. As such, your brand identity should exhibit qualities such as a First-born in any family: Responsible, Strong, Mature, Organized, Leader.

If you are anything but first, you must position yourself accordingly, as a Last-born, whether you are second, third, fourth, or fifth, against the first as you climb the ranks to their level. Your brand identity should include qualities such as Enjoyable, Cool, Clever, Flamboyant, Independent.

The annals of marketing history have been filled with endless case studies demonstrating the Birth Order Theory at play, to the point where it is nearly self-evident.

Some painfully obvious and much-publicized illustrations of the point:

Microsoft (First-born) vs. Apple (Last-born)

Recall the significance of the “Get a Mac” campaign that ran from 2006 to 2009. Is there a more clear example of a responsible First-born sibling diligently trying to finish their homework to maintain straight A’s, while the bratty little brother taunts and jabs him, showing superiority by being cool and witty? This approach was the rock that slew Goliath and helped Apple own the challenger brand position, which propelled them up the path to become the most highly valued company in the world. In 2006, this Last-born strategy was a perfect position. Today, as their valuation rockets towards $1 Trillion, you’re not seeing the same brand giving the finger to authority. Now they are the establishment and taking on a striking resemblance to a First-born brand.

Coke (First-born) vs. Pepsi (Last-born)

Can you imagine Pepsi utilizing happy polar bears or associating with Santa? Do you think the Coca-Cola company would have ever discussed using a Kardashian family member in a TV commercial? Go back a few short decades and consider the moxie of the Pepsi Challenge. Typical behavior for the little cub to challenge big brother to an arm-wrestling match to show off just how strong he has become. Meanwhile, Coke continues to take the high road, time after time. If Pepsi is MTV, Coke is ABC. Faithfully playing their First-born position has served the Coca-Cola company well, allowing them to win the Cola Wars and maintain market share dominance through global sales volume more than 130 years after being introduced.

Starbucks (First-born) vs. Dunkin’ Donuts (Last-born)

The birth order dynamic has been fiercely at play between these two giants of java. Before you dismiss Dunkin’ as a donut company and not a competitor to Starbucks, take a look at the logo– a coffee cup, not a donut. Also, consider their CEO’s proclamation, “We are a beverage company.” What makes this relationship unique is the role reversal that took place through Starbucks branching-off. Consider the founding of these two companies: Dunkin’ in 1950, a 21-year old at the birth of Starbucks in 1971. Witnessing the brand positioning of Dunkin’, recall the goofball schtick from the 1980s, “Time to make the donuts.” At the time, this made sense as Dunkin’ was attacking the established grocery chains, playing the challenger brand. As a category leader of places to stop for morning coffee, they forgot to act like a First-born. Enter Howard Schultz and the ascent of Starbucks. Few brands could take themselves more seriously, even forcing customers to speak what Dunkin’ mockingly called, “Fritallian.” For years they would not reduce themselves to traditional ad campaigns used by the rest of the world. Dunkin’ became your slovenly but sweet uncle who can’t hold down a job. Starbucks became your strict but world-conquering father, who frequently has to bail out his little brother. In other words, a vacuum existed in the category. So rather than have two competitors acting like a Last-born, Starbucks behaved like a First-born and the market share followed with it. Today, the older, sillier Dunkin’ has a market cap hovering below $6 Billion, compared to Starbucks’ $84+ Billion. Dunkin’ now leans into their position as the family youngster, not wholly responsible, but always down for a good time. The difference is that, based on the numbers, this has become the right position to play.

The key to making the Birth Order Theory work for your business is as simple as a glance around your dining room table.

Consider your market position and look to the leader. Are they living out the traits of a First-born? Are they strong and responsible? Are they clever and cool? Whatever position they occupy, your job is to branch-off and play the opposite position. If they are a leader and failing to act like it, you must act like it for them. If you are the leader, make sure you don’t let anyone down. All of human history has shown that the world is on your shoulders. If you were a Last-born and your methods propel you to occupying the top spot, then it’s time to grow up.

The family’s future now depends on you. Know thyself and play your position.

For help along the way, Oxford Road is here.

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