In the late 1990s, as a young public relations manager at Cunningham Communication, I had an opportunity to work with Ron Ricci and John Volkmann, two of the firm’s senior consultants and executive team members. They were developing a new framework to explain how technology companies and products win in the market and why. They were challenged by then-Cisco CEO John Chambers to deliver a brand management strategy whose success could be measured by revenue growth and shareholder value.
The challenge was accepted and with the help of Jay Shutter, who led our research team at Cunningham, we developed the Leadership Momentum framework and econometric model by which we could benchmark momentum and changes in brand leadership.
As a graduate of economics and student of econometrics from Boston University and Georgetown University, I understood how powerful this was. It was the first time I had seen an attempt to measure a qualitative, intangible attribute like brand positioning with a quantitative tool that could be used by communication professionals to build strategies and tactical programs. The Momentum Management Index was developed to provide a relative measure of brand leadership and companies could use it to benchmark the success (or lack of success) of their communication programs.
What is Leadership Momentum?
In 2002, Ricci and Volkmann published the book Momentum: How Companies Become Unstoppable Market Forces. The book was updated in 2022 and it is even more relevant today. In it, they write, “Digital markets are intrinsically dynamic, and momentum comes straight from the field of mechanics and the study of dynamic conditions. So, you could say Newton pointed the way. From observation and experience, certain companies in every digital market have leveraged a combination of product strategy, brand, and the unique structure of a particular market’s value chain to become unstoppable forces in the minds of customers, with nearly unassailable market positions.”
In physics, momentum is a function of mass, speed, and direction. Momentum is a fundamental concept in physics that describes the quantity of motion possessed by an object. It is a vector quantity, meaning it has both magnitude and direction.
“Digital markets are intrinsically dynamic, and momentum comes straight from the field of mechanics and the study of dynamic conditions. So, you could say Newton pointed the way. From observation and experience, certain companies in every digital market have leveraged a combination of product strategy, brand, and the unique structure of a particular market’s value chain to become unstoppable forces in the minds of customers, with nearly unassailable market positions.” - Ricci and Volkmann
As in physics, brands have momentum, too (or not). Leadership momentum is a function of the customer’s perception of mass, speed, and direction in a given market category. An organization with sustainable leadership momentum is considered the inevitable leader of the category. Inevitability is critical because customers, partners, and other stakeholders need reassurance that an organization is relevant, sustainable, and consistent with the direction of the market.
Mass perception is related to the market footprint of a company and is sometimes measured by the sum total of customers and partners in a company’s ecosystem. However, mass perception is also tied to the relative position of a company in its target market as well as its core value proposition for customers.
Speed defines the relative innovation quotient of a company and how well it is perceived to be executing against trends and setting market direction through technology innovation.
Direction defines the strategic direction and vision of the company coupled with the trust that people assign to the brand. A company’s vision is less about itself and more about the way the world ought to be. Brand integrity is critical to a company in high-tech where complexity and sometimes higher costs require a level of trust.
Six Variables Driving Momentum
The Leadership Momentum framework developed by Cunningham was not just theoretical. With Jay Shutter’s leadership, the team conducted thorough research, testing hundreds of independent and dependent variables from sales revenue to stock price, from the volume of press coverage to the number of strategic partners. Companies like Cisco, OpenWave, and Sprint participated in these early studies.
Econometric tools allow for the testing of statistical significance allowing the researcher to build a model that is relevant – one that can be predictive. Regression analysis is a statistical technique used to examine the relationship between a dependent variable (the variable we want to predict or explain) and one or more independent variables (the variables that we believe influence the dependent variable). It helps us understand how changes in the independent variables are associated with changes in the dependent variable.
Shutter and his team polled and interviewed hundreds of customers, partners, and investors to build the model. Variables were tested for statistical significance and six variables rose to the top and could explain momentum with 95% confidence, allowing communication strategies to understand where a brand’s momentum was weak and where it was strong.
These are those six variables:
- Category Leadership is the superiority of a company’s products and services within the chosen category. It can be measured as a function of differentiation. A company can choose what category they want to compete in and therefore influence their position relative to other competitors.
- Relevance of Value is the critical role the company plays in the lives of its customers, partners, and the world. If you are not solving a critical problem, then you are likely a commodity. Your value proposition is your promise to the customer. It defines what customers can expect if they commit to your brand. And if the promise is irrelevant to their business or lives, it is not considered.
- Ecosystem Potential is the ability to create a system of economics that attracts customers and partners. The term has become popular with marketers over the last twenty years, but most don’t understand its underlying meaning. The importance of your ecosystem is not measured merely by its size and the number of partners you might have. A powerful ecosystem is one that drives value for its members. A successful ecosystem strategy ensures that interdependent growth is assured and nurtured so the ecosystem thrives as a whole. (See the article “All Leaders Need an Ecosystem.”)
- Market Agility is the speed at which a company is perceived to execute against industry trends and deliver innovation. It is the ability to be proactive, adaptive, and responsive to evolving customer needs, emerging technologies, competitive forces, and other external factors that impact the business.
- Shared Vision is the faith and confidence people place in the company’s vision. A company vision is a statement that describes the future state of the world that the organization is trying to create. It is aspirational, and inspirational, and provides a sense of purpose and direction to the organization and its ecosystem of stakeholders. And the best vision is shared with other market leaders. (See the article “Your Company Vision Shouldn’t Be About Your Company.")
- Brand integrity is the trust that people assign to the company, its products, and its services. It is a measure of its brand promise. When a company consistently delivers on its promises and acts with integrity, it enhances its credibility and fosters long-term relationships with customers.
A Model for Relationship Brands
Twenty years ago, it was postulated that the momentum model was only relevant to digital technologies. The decision to purchase a technology product or service requires consideration – we conduct research, we look at product reviews, and we must feel comfortable that the company will still be in business in the coming years. Whereas, a consumer good, like coffee or pizza, is not a considered purchase. Based on these assumptions, the Leadership Momentum framework was believed to be irrelevant to non-technology organizations and markets.
However, over the last 20 years, I have continued to use the framework in my consulting engagements, and I would argue that the product or service does not need to be digital technology. Or any technology, for that matter.
I have leveraged the framework to help government agencies, like NASA and the EPA, build a narrative and messaging strategy to own critical issues and drive public opinion. I have used the momentum framework to help consumer brands deepen the customer experience and drive brand loyalty. The Leadership Momentum framework has helped nonprofits advance their relevant leadership position in influencing a global cause.
The common denominator is not technology, but rather relationships.
A "relationship brand" is a type of brand that focuses on establishing and nurturing a strong emotional connection and ongoing relationship with its customers. It goes beyond transactional interactions and aims to create a deeper bond by fostering loyalty, trust, and meaningful engagement. Relationship brands prioritize building long-term customer relationships rather than solely focusing on one-time transactions.
A commodity refers to a basic, undifferentiated product or service that is readily available in the market. Examples include raw materials like oil or wheat, or basic household items like salt or sugar. In the case of commodities, the primary factors driving customer choice are usually price and availability. There is typically little opportunity for building a relationship with customers as the product lacks unique features or brand associations.
But companies like Starbucks have demonstrated that you can drive a customer experience and build a relationship with your customer, even if your primary product is a commodity. The differentiation is in the service and experience.
The Leadership Momentum framework is a tool for any “relationship brand,” whether that be a traditional commodity, complex technology, nonprofit cause, or public service. If building a relationship with your customer is a goal, the Leadership Momentum framework is a powerful strategy to employ.
A Bold Narrative Drives Momentum
At Bold Narratives, we use the Leadership Momentum framework to guide our strategic positioning and communication recommendations for all our clients. After crafting the most compelling story based on the organization’s unique position and value proposition, we then develop a comprehensive leadership momentum communications plan to ensure the story reaches customers and other stakeholders.
We understand that a powerful brand story is only relevant if it reaches your customers. That’s why we deliver not only a bold and courageous story but a plan with clear, tactical recommendations on how to build mass, speed, and direction and create sustainable momentum.