Branding Collage

In the second post in our Anatomy of a Brand series, we begin to tackle a subject that’s close to my heart as a former consumer products marketer -- differentiation. While it's a critical component of brand strategy, differentiation isn’t always top-of-mind among B2B, higher ed and nonprofit marketers.  It so happens that these categories make up the bulk of our client roster at SAI, so we’re tackling the topic here.


Because of the nature of our clients' businesses, we sometimes encounter a bit of skepticism when we talk about the importance of differentiating brands, which isn’t surprising when you consider that the term "Unique Selling Proposition" comes from the world of packaged goods advertising.  To understand why we universally recommend strategic brand differentiation, let’s consider why some may push back:


  • ​“We’re in a crowded categor​y, an​d there’s nothing material that separates what we do.”  We hear this more frequently than you might imagine; it’s a common sentiment in competitive segments like professional services and certain manufacturing sectors.  In a timely turn of events, The Good Wife’s main character Alicia Florrick delivered the following line in the most recent episode, summing up the problem succinctly:  “The firm needs to be defined. It needs an identity. All service firms tend to do too much. No one knows what they’re about.” Alicia may be a fictional lawyer, but she cited a real issue. ​


Why is it, then, that so many brands do little to try to cr​eate separation between themselves and their competitors? Simply put, it’s their way of casting a wide net. Out of fear of limiting potential sources of revenue, their value proposition remains vague in hopes that they don’t turn business away. However, that rationale is faulty. Trying to be all things to all people, as the CBS TV writers pointed out, is the surest way not to stand for anything at all, relegating your brand to commodity status. With no distinguishing attributes, “me-too” brands inherently compete on price, defeating the purpose of having a brand in the first place, which is to create value.


  • Complex or intangible p​roducts/services cannot be distilled down into tangible benefits like most consumer goods can.”  This is another popular obstacle in the path of strong brand differentiation, but it’s built on a misconception that intangible or complex value propositions are somehow above being considered brands at all. Realize that every “sell” doesn’t always result in a simple business transaction. Whether you’re providing financial services, admitting students to a college, building a new housing development or encouraging people to become organ donors, you still have “consumers” and differentiation would benefit your brand. 


  • “We’re not a product or​ service; we have no competition.” This bit of feedback is related to the one above. Every brand has competition, it’s just a matter of how direct the competition is. Sure, Coke has Pepsi and a long list of other carbonated soft drinks, but there are also bottled waters, iced teas, energy drinks and juices to consider – all on nearby grocery shelves – but what about tap water? And beer? The point is that thinking about your competition in more general terms can only help your marketing efforts. It’s less about knowing what brands are being chosen in place of yours (although that’s important too, as you will learn in an upcoming blog post); instead, consider what factors are keeping consumers from choosing your brand in general.  If you are a marketing director for a trade association, for example, what’s keeping you from increasing membership? Perhaps there’s no other association in your industry (direct competitors), but there are still plenty of alternatives to your brand. They can learn about best practices by following industry blogs, or they can network and search for jobs via LinkedIn or other social networks. There may be ad hoc industry groups on a local level that depress your membership. In any case, awareness of these circumstances is an important initial step toward differentiating your brand and adding real value to your organization.

Now that we’ve convinced you (hopefully) that differentiation is necessary, stay tuned for our next blog that explores various ways to do so.  

Until then, if you have feedback or questions, drop us an email at