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Thought leadership from SAI to accelerate your performance

Systems Alliance Blog

Opinion, advice and commentary on IT and business issues from SAI
Date: May 2016

It’s been over a year since the death of Freddie Gray in police custody sparked outrage and several days of riots in Baltimore. On May 23rd a verdict in the trial of Officer Edward Nero, one of a group of Baltimore police officers implicated in Gray’s death, was announced. That verdict was not guilty on all counts. But more interesting than the verdict was the judge’s explanation for his not guilty ruling.

One of the key questions was – did Officer Nero follow proper procedures during the arrest of Freddie Gray? That question centered on whether or not this police officer acted properly in helping to place Gray in the police van where he later sustained fatal injuries. The prosecution’s case against Nero was largely based on the fact that the Baltimore Police Department recently enacted a policy that arrested individuals must be seat belted when transported in a police van. Freddie Gray was not secured with a seat belt, which was considered a critical contributing factor to his injuries, and ultimately his death. This new policy was enacted shortly before Gray’s death and Baltimore Police Officers were notified via email.

At this point in the story, the facts ended and the questions began. Had Officer Nero read the email detailing the change in policy requiring suspects to be seat belted? Was he aware of the procedure for properly seat belting a suspect in a police van? The defense argued that Officer Nero had not checked his email and was not aware of the policy change or of procedures to seat belt suspects in police vans. The prosecution’s challenge was that the Baltimore Police Department did not have a process in place to verify that Officers read or understood policy changes. It was also apparently common for Officers to not check their email regularly. Bottom line, the prosecution could not prove that Officer Nero was aware of the change in policy requiring suspects to be secured with a seat belt. This fact was a key reason the judge cited in his not guilty verdict. Since the prosecution could not prove Officer Nero was aware of the seat belt policy, the judge ruled his actions were reasonable, not negligent or criminal.

That’s a profound sequence of events – gaps in effective process and a lack of audit trail for policy and procedure communication becoming critical factors in a high-profile, politically-charged criminal trial. To avoid a repeat of the process gaps surrounding the Freddie Gray case, the Baltimore Police Department has since implemented a technology solution to ensure that policy and procedure changes are distributed to Officers and an audit trail is maintained as Officers read and acknowledge that content. While technology is no panacea for a flawed process, it is an important component of creating an effective process.

Not a Unique Challenge

While this example of gaps in policy and procedure communication focuses on police, we see similar issues in other industries as well; healthcare is a great example. Just like the police officers who rarely checked their email, the same is fairly common among clinical staff in healthcare environments. These individuals – doctors, nurses, physician’s assistants – are not spending their day at a desk in front of a computer. So getting their attention via email is a challenge and acknowledgement of policy and procedure changes is often haphazard in these settings.  We’re actively working with organizations in the healthcare space to help address some of these challenges.

The Lesson

Whether the environment is a police department, a hospital, a manufacturing facility or even a restaurant, ensuring that critical policy, procedure and training information is distributed to staff, and an audit trail of their acknowledgement is recorded, are critical factors to minimizing risk and legal exposure. The first key component is having an effective business process in place to ensure that relevant content is accurate and up-to-date. Next staff must be educated on why understanding and following these policies, procedures, guidelines, and work instructions are critical to their own, and their organization’s success. Then we have to make it easy for them to comply and for us to keep track of their compliance. That’s where the technology comes in. To effectively enable this process change with technology, a platform with the following capabilities is crucial:

  • Web-based – the content you’re distributing should be accessible across any device that your staff may have available to them. Providing the content in a web-based format is the most effective way to ensure usability across the broadest array of devices possible.
  • Easy to use – if it’s difficult to find or access the content, your staff will not embrace the process. The platform you choose must be easy to use to make it simple and quick for staff to access the content, read/digest/acknowledge and get back to work.
  • Mobile-optimized – the individuals to whom we need to distribute content are not necessarily sitting at a desk in front of a computer, they’re walking the halls of a hospital, driving a police car or repairing a production line in a factory. The content must be accessible and optimized for use via smartphones, tablets and other mobile devices so that staff don’t have to stop and walk away from what they’re doing to access the critical information we’re making available to them.
  • Audit trail – in order to keep track of who has accessed and read the content, the platform should allow staff to acknowledge reading the content, with a permanent audit trail of that acknowledgement maintained by the system.
  • Quizzing – while acknowledgement helps to check the compliance box, it doesn’t really guarantee that the staff member read or understood the policy before acknowledging it. Distributing a brief quiz with a policy or procedure, and requiring staff to complete that quiz as part of the acknowledgement, helps you validate that the content has been read and understood.
  • Reporting – effective reporting to show managers which of their staff have/have not acknowledged critical documents or satisfactorily completed quizzes to demonstrate their knowledge.

I stress again that technology alone is not a solution to a process issue, but the right technology platform in conjunction with an effective change management process can have a significant impact on the effectiveness of an organization, and on the reduction of risk. We’ve gathered tremendously valuable information around these topics through hundreds of hours of interviews during the recent launch of our Acadia product. Call or send me an email and we would be happy to share information with you.

This election season, as brutal as it is for those of us not fond of discord, holds an important lesson for marketers – the value of having a brand that feels authentic. Whatever your personal feelings toward a disheveled 74 year-old socialist or an abrasive billionaire with bad hair, the fact that these men are unabashedly true to themselves certainly accounts for a big part of their immense popularity in certain circles. What’s more, it proves that authenticity can make up for a number of sins. How often do you hear voters point to the way these candidates present themselves as the basis for their support? Clearly, voters are willing to forgive words, actions or even policies that might sink a less authentic candidate. That is a quintessential illustration of the power of a brand.

We’re certainly not suggesting that being authentic requires being outrageous or even anti-establishment, but if you look past the hullaballoo, there are marketing truths to uncover in our current political climate. 

Anatomy of a Brand

Originality is inherently compelling

Whether you like them or not, you can’t help but take notice of candidates like Sanders and Trump. These two political phenomena are using their identities – warts and all - to carve out an advantage. In other political seasons, being a political outsider or not being a party’s chosen candidate could be the kiss of death for a campaign, but when these attributes actually become an integral part of one’s brand, it certainly sets them apart from other candidates. In a similar vein, we encourage our clients to find ways to be different, whether that’s in their product/service offering, their style or a method of delivery. If you haven’t read our last brand blog about differentiation, we encourage you to do so.  

If you’re able to control the conversation, you have an advantage

Trump and Sanders established themselves by confronting topics that other candidates were largely unwilling to discuss – immigration and income inequality, respectively. As a result, they were able not only to connect with voters in a unique way, but also to force the other candidates to follow suit. In branding, the first-mover advantage applies as much to messaging as it does to technological superiority within a market. In the end, however, it’s important to understand that what you say is often less important than how you say it. For example, Donald Trump’s opponents have long criticized him for lacking  substance on the issues, yet his is the campaign generating the most excitement among Republican primary voters. And it’s not even close.

Directness is refreshing

Related to controlling the conversation is tackling subjects that can be difficult to broach.  Bernie Sanders acknowledged that his agenda would require raising taxes – obviously an unpopular position to take in a campaign season full of promises – and a pretty distinct departure from the messages of his opponents. For his part, Mr. Trump’s abject disregard for political correctness is a critical component of his persona, and thus, his appeal. What does that tell us about voters, or consumers? Getting a real answer – even one you don’t like – is preferable to getting a contrived or phony one, in politics or anywhere else. Whatever industry you’re in, being perceived as a straight shooter gives you an immediate advantage. 

Perceptions can be adjusted – if the adjustments ring true 

Like any good brand marketer, Mr. Sanders is attempting to turn a negative into a positive by saying that the tax increases he’s proposing will actually save taxpayers money in the long term. Sanders polls highest among all candidates on honesty and trustworthiness by voters in both parties, so whether they agree with his assertion or not, that integrity is carrying him a long way in public perception. Similarly, if your brand is priced at a premium or has some other perceived disadvantage (e.g., a difficult location), striving to reframe your total value proposition is important – provided it comes from a place that is genuine. And no matter what you’re selling, no matter what the message, being authentic means talking to your audience like they’re smart enough to know what’s good for them.

Playing it safe is almost always a fatal mistake 

Above all, Trump and Sanders are not trying to be all things to all people. For better or worse, they are taking stands and presenting themselves in ways that, although they may be highly polarizing, engender rabid support among certain portions of the audience. They watch the polls, but they don’t play to them. You’ll rarely see either candidate reading from a teleprompter or, especially in the case of Mr. Trump, mincing words when asked a direct question. As different as they are, personally and on the political spectrum, these men do not exhibit “typical politician” behavior, and in 2016, their brand of politics has become an enormous disruption to the status quo. It’s quite possible that more qualified candidates have fallen by the wayside in this election year, but regardless of Mr. Sanders’ or Mr. Trump’s ultimate success or failure in the presidential race, theirs are the brands that elicit the most authentic emotion among voters. For marketers, this comparison example underscores the need to connect with target audiences on a gut level. Avoid generic messages. Don’t blend in. Don’t talk at people; instead, strive to build a relationship with consumers on multiple levels – and above all, make sure your identity rings true and is consistent across every brand touchpoint. Which brings us to our next topic in our Anatomy of a Brand series – Consistency. Stay tuned!

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.

 Anatomy of a Brand banner


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.

People/Personal Service

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.

Expertise/Problem Solving

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.

Your Story

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.  

May 2016