When marketers began differentiating brands in earnest after World War II, there were fewer goods and services in the marketplace, so it was a relatively easy proposition to draw distinctions between them. Decades later, the marketplace has exploded; branded offerings now encompass complex and intangible products and services. People are brands, politicians are brands, and branding techniques are now routinely applied even to ideas to gain share of mind. As a result, there are many more factors by which we can and do carve out unique identities for our brands. Since we made the case for doing so in our last blog, we will now explore some of the ways you might go about it.
Before we work on expanding anyone’s concept of what factors can be differentiating, it’s important to note that this is all about perception. For example, Brand X may enjoy undeniable product superiority in a category, but if target customers don’t know about it, there is no competitive advantage – there is only potential. Conversely, Brand Y might pale in comparison to X on actual performance, but other factors may contribute to making Y the preferred brand. Further, brands can “own” things that aren’t necessarily unique to them (again, perception) if the message itself is unique and delivered consistently.
The factors that contribute to brand differentiation are countless, and they are often used in combination. Intrinsic differentiators emanate from the product or service itself and generally deal with the way the specific product or service functions or performs, which we won’t get into here. Instead, we present the following, more external factors in hopes that they will inspire you to fine-tune your brand strategy.
Ease of access, proximity, focus, local knowledge – these are among the perceived advantages when a product or service is convenient and readily available. Your value proposition doesn’t need to be unique in the absolute, just unique in your market area. Geographical factors can stand alone (the only hospital in a city), or they can be combined with other pillars to help create separation from other brands, e.g., the largest 4-year BSN school of nursing in South Florida.
An obvious choice in the struggle for differentiation, price is also an inherently tricky one. To be the cost leader in any category can be a real competitive advantage, but it can also a precarious position to be in. As we marketers are fond of saying, “If a customer comes in on price, they’ll go out on price, too,” meaning that cost alone does not typically drive loyalty in any meaningful way. Nor is price leadership necessarily ownable. Depending on the category, temporary or short-term price promotions by other players in the market can quickly erode consumers’ perception of Brand X as the low-cost provider. On the flip side, brands that are differentiated by their premium positions have additional factors at work, whether real or perceived, to justify their higher price.
In service-based industries or in those with complex, intangible products, the organization’s human resources bear much of the responsibility for fulfilling the brand promise. A university, for example, may have high-profile faculty who are synonymous with the institution’s brand. However, the people in any given organization don't necessarily need to be well-known to help differentiate the brand. In fact, they don’t even need to be identified. Collectively, an organization’s people can be an important driver of brand value. Think about Southwest Airlines and their culture of friendly employees. At Zappos, where customer service reps are fully empowered to “wow” their customers, they managed to carve out a distinct competitive advantage in a crowded category not known for the human touch.
Brands don’t need to be in fashion or image-driven categories to have an apparent sense of style. Style encompasses elements like personality, humor and visuals that are distinctive and attractive to target audiences. For example, the American Express brand exudes affluence and taste. Often, a brand’s style represents a departure from what you would normally expect in a category. Yellowtail Wine made the biggest splash in the wine industry in the last 50 years by adopting a look and attitude that was antithetical to anything else in the industry at the time, opening up brand new market segments in the process.
Target Market or Niche
Smart marketers understand that the most successful brands have a well-defined core customer. In some cases, it becomes so well-defined and is such a good match that the target becomes a key brand differentiator. In higher education, for example, Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts has driven brand preference among young women with leadership skills who wish to make a difference in the world. On a broader scale, Under Armour began by selling compression shirts to athletes who were unyielding, determined and dissatisfied with the status quo. Two decades later, the company is huge, but the brand is still built for young men and women who can relate to that mindset.
Big is good, right? It depends. Whatever size you are, embrace it, and communicate it with abandon if it results in something important to your target. For example, if you are a small college surrounded by large universities, you can probably find a distinct advantage in there – small class sizes, a ‘family’ feel – but it must be authentic and desirable, and geared toward the right target.
What are the pain points that particular consumers face? Focusing on how you solve key problems can be particularly compelling in certain industries. The problem must be common to many or all organizations within the sector, and you must be clear in demonstrating how you solve it. Done well and with consistency, content marketing is an excellent way to drive perception of your brand as a through leader in the industry.
Perhaps the most common form of extrinsic differentiation is the creation of original and distinctive marketing platform that helps drive brand value. Examples include: an iconic ad campaign such as “The most interesting man in the world” from Dos Equis, Geico’s popular gecko mascot, and on the nonprofit side, a powerful social media campaign such as the Ice Bucket Challenge for ALS, or the emotional “Give Thanks” message for St. Jude’s Research Hospital. Note: a marketing campaign does not need to be big or famous to be effective; it simply needs to be distinctive in its category and motivating for its target.
This is the only form of differentiation that’s 100% ownable. A brand’s story, carefully developed and creatively presented, can differentiate the brand by establishing a personality and reinforcing the values for which the brand was founded. This approach is often utilized in higher education, but it can be just as compelling in other categories.
Do you have a great story to tell or other categories of differentiation not covered here? Our subscribers might be interested, so please let us know. In the next installment of our Anatomy of a Brand series, we’ll cover a related topic that’s perhaps the toughest part about differentiating your brand—that is, doing it with authenticity.