How differentiation can put you on the map — and give your business a competitive advantage.
I am always surprised when I hear someone say “I can't afford to build my brand.” I think in most cases, these individuals are confused about what “branding” really means. Branding isn't always about big flashy advertising campaigns, but it is about creating differentiation from your competitors. Every company has a brand. Whether or not you choose to manage your brand is often the difference between success and failure in business.
Small companies often have a greater need for branding as a competitive advantage than the big companies that generally have well established brands. Branding is about everything you say and do in all forms of communications, whether planned or not. Therefore, managing your brand should be embedded in your culture and business processes.
Consider the fact that Google built its brand by word of mouth. It didn't do any advertising until fairly recently when the brand was well established. In fact, I remember giving a speech many years ago and mentioning that Google was this interesting new startup that everyone should pay attention to because it has a great business concept. In the audience was Kendra DiGirolamo, one of the company's first employees, who handed me a Google T-shirt as a thank you for mentioning Google. Looking back, I should have had her sign and date it.
Of course, not every company is a budding Google. Sometimes the more mundane your company, or undifferentiated your industry, the greater the opportunity exists for branding.
For example, let's consider the market for salt. Every grain of salt is chemically the same as any other grain. Talk about a commodity. Yet, Morton made its salt into a brand with the now famous tagline, “When it rains it pours.” It created a perception of differentiation that solved a consumer problem — the clogging of salt in damp weather. They also created a catchy little jingle that still plays in my mind. It has no real meaning, but it becomes a mantra when it is heard repeatedly: “No salt salts, like Morton salt salts.” It's a brilliant concept simply executed.
One of my favorite small brands is a veterinary clinic called South Salem Animal Hospital in South Salem, N.Y. New owners purchased the business and immediately realized that their location, while on a fairly busy highway, was not very visible. They also had many competitors in the area.
Previous owners of the property left behind two large sculptures of dogs (about the size of Dobermans) made of cement, which were soon to be heading to the dump.
On a whim, instead of discarding them, the new owners began dressing up the dogs to reflect the seasons. At first it was Thanksgiving and they were dressed as pilgrims, at Christmas they were dressed as Santa and Mrs. Claus, at Easter they were dressed as Easter bunnies. Every time we passed South Salem Animal Hospital, my kids went ballistic to see how the dogs were dressed. Cars began to pull over to take pictures. The theme grew — local football teams were represented. Proms were celebrated with the dogs in a tuxedo and a gown. Great fun. Totally differentiating.
Articles started appearing in the local press. It was great for business, and it cost next to nothing to execute while putting this hard-to-find location on the map.
Another commodity industry is polyethylene pipe — if you've seen one black pipe you've seen them all. But, one manufacturer put a green stripe along the length of the pipe and this changed the industry. Suddenly everyone knew the pipe with the green stripe. The green line took on a life of its own without adding any intrinsic value whatsoever. When it was used in construction, the green lines were often aligned by workers even though there was no meaning or value to doing so. The stripe created an aura of differentiation. It cost little to paint the green line, but premium value of green line grew — customers demanded it. It changed the industry. Brilliant.
Nothing beats differentiation for beating the competition. So, how does one differentiate? It is a process of thinking about your brand from a fresh perspective.
- How does your competition position its company — what position does it own?
- What assets do you have that make you unique?
- What is your company's greatest strength? Can you own it? Is it differentiated?
- What position can you take to help you gain a competitive advantage?
- Is your desired position sustainable over the long term?
Going through this exercise and developing perceptual maps of where you are and where you want to be over a set period of time is the first step for creating a differentiated positioning. It is also the first step in branding. Creating a differentiated brand will often make the difference between success and failure.
And always remember that you don't need to outspend the competition. It is all about leveraging what makes you different from them.
James R. Gregory is founder and CEO of CoreBrand, a global brand strategy, communications and design firm headquartered in New York, with offices in Los Angeles and Tampa. He helps clients develop strategies to improve their corporate brands and profitability. Gregory has written four books on creating value with brands: “Marketing Corporate Image,” “Leveraging the Corporate Brand,” “Branding Across Borders” and “The Best of Branding.” Contact him at [email protected].