A ‘blast from the past’ with enduring relevance: the Values Ladder case of DuPont’s Kevlar

Introduction

Long in the public domain, the case of Kevlar’s Values Ladder provides enduring relevance for B2B companies, any size, any category. If you’re under pressure from competition and need to differentiate, read on. If you need to refresh the market’s knowledge of your strengths and benefits to ensure a secure return to market, read on. If you need to move on from selling technical specs to selling your brand in all markets, in good times or bad, this case is for you.

Kevlar basics

Created in 1965 by Stephanie Kwolek, Kevlar is an ingredient brand with over 50+ uses in both B2B and B2C contexts. A para-aramid fiber, Kevlar provides lightweight strength 5X stronger than steel, and so is often used to replace metal. It is best known for its applications in protective apparel like bullet-proof vests, helmets and gloves, but is also used in sports equipment from ski boots and bicycle tires to racing sails; it is used in the mining and aeronautics industries; and in highly technical uses, e.g., marine current and wind turbines, particle physics.

The challenge: Late ‘90s

By the late ‘90s, Kevlar had achieved global penetration, but was losing share and price premiums to low-cost competitors (e.g., Akzo’s Twaron). Kevlar’s communications efforts were numerous, but usage-specific, and generated mixed and inconclusive results (see below). It was at this time that Kevlar decided to engage in a Brand Octagon process to find a differentiated brand positioning which, for them, was the equivalent of finding a differentiated business positioning.

Kevlar 1

The opportunity

The game-changer in the branding process was a classic messaging exercise —the Values Ladder involving product attributes, benefits and values.

The Kevlar brand team realised that no amount of long-term differentiation was possible by communicating only at the product attribute level, i.e., as the original, superior para-aramid fiber. Technical specs were imminently copy-able by competitors, who were already delivering comparability for lower prices. Nothing would change this trajectory. It was a global phenomenon. Rather, differentiation could be achieved through branding, marketing and messaging. For engineers and chemists, however, this was at first hard to accept.

The Kevlar Values Ladder

Throughout the laddering process, the engineers came to realise that a para-aramid fiber that provides light-weight strength (attributes and functional benefits, at bottom below) is not an end in itself, but rather just the beginning

Kevlar 2

Because Kevlar could replace metal, it could enhance performance (Emotional Benefits), particularly in extreme conditions. It could allow you to do what you do, but in a much better way – with confidence, safety and ease (emotional values). It could make you a better skier, a safer, more protected soldier, a more agile boater. The real story: Kevlar works with you to allow you to Be the best you can be! (end value, top of ladder)

For all its fancy technology and chemistry, the brand is really about individual empowerment. What the branding process revealed transformed the team, the division, the brand itself.

The insight and impact on communications: 1999

Then as now, Kevlar is far more than a para-aramid fiber. It is an ingredient brand that works with you, and for you. Its high quality is put into service to enhance your performance. So in 1999, a new campaign was developed behind Guts & Kevlar, Brains & Kevlar, Attitude & Kevlar  —it’s quite a combination.

Across its 50+ uses, Kevlar’s contributions are single-minded; its enabling, empowering performance unifies applications and unifies the brand. Hence the tagline for the new campaign, The Power of Performance. This insight opened the way for the new communications campaign that for the first time built synergies across uses. The brand became bigger than individual applications.  

Kevlar 3

The new reality: early 2000s

Kevlar began licensing its name to Original End Manufacturers (OEMs.) Consumers began paying a premium for products containing Kevlar. The value of the brand was estimated at $1 billion. They didn’t sell a fiber any more, they sold a brand. The branding process was also a powerful internal unifier—other DuPont business divisions wanted to become more like Kevlar.

Arguably, the transformation in their brand was nowhere more evident or dramatic than in their new communications campaign, the Power of Performance. From earlier communications that silo-ed the brand uses, the new campaign aimed to deliver a single-minded message: Kevlar enhances your performance and allows you to “be the best you can be”; together you and Kevlar “make quite a combination”, which still holds true today.  

Kevlar 4

New horizons: 2015 and going strong

In 2015, Kevlar celebrated its 50th anniversary with a new campaign entitled “Dare Bigger.” In our view, it is an edgy, very current take on the strategy of enhanced performance developed over 20 years ago. And herein is a final value of a strong brand positioning. When a brand strategy is right, it is timeless.

Getting started

You know if your communications are maximal. If they are not, the Values Ladder is an extraordinary tool for helping you break through boundaries, discover new, emotional strengths of your B2B offering, and set a truly differentiated course for your business vs. competition. You have only to look to Kevlar for proof and inspiration.

To get started, do revisit the link above for a review of the Values Ladder process:

  • Start at the bottom of the Values Ladder (attributes) and work your way up, asking at each rung on the ladder, So What? What functional and emotional benefits and values does your product or service provide your targets?
  • The top of the Ladder, the End Value, is particularly important as it holds the potential to capture your brand positioning.  

Hint:

  • Functional benefits typically reflect enhanced performance.
  • Emotional benefits, greater professional satisfaction.
  • Emotional values, greater achievement and professional excellence.
  • End value is ultimate impact.

If you have multiple products, and/or multiple audiences, repeat the process for each.

Gather a core team to help you. The exercise is difficult alone whereas in a group, it is fun and exciting.

Be prepared for an eye-opening, transformative experience.

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