As a brand or marketing professional, one of the most important aspects of your job is to differentiate your brand from the competition. But companies are not sufficiently differentiating their brands, and consumers have an unprecedented capacity to compare brands and understand just how indistinguishable they are from each other.
However, many companies are operating on outdated assumptions. Consumers now have a plethora of options available to them and can often research products or services with ease. Devices like laptops and smartphones allow people to compare prices easily, reviews, and functionality across products or services in seconds. A customer can quickly stack his options next to each other in what looks like a stripped-down, impersonal matrix designed specifically to enable comparing and contrasting. These tools further expose the lack of differentiation among brands in most categories today.
Why Is It Important for Brands to Differentiate?
The problems associated with brand indistinguishability can be seen across three distinct categories of metrics:
- Core brand health metrics (e.g., decreases in awareness, relevance, uniqueness, consideration, and purchase intent)
- Broader business metrics (e.g., lower sales, brand loyalty, and market share)
- Financial performance (undifferentiated brands struggle to command a premium price point, have slower revenue growth and lower profit margins, and face decreases in shareholder value)
How to Move from Indistinguishable to Indispensable
Differentiation remains a relevant and worthy goal, and the good news is it's well within marketers' control to achieve this outcome. And as brands become more distinguishable, they become more relevant to customers and more profitable for the companies that own them. Below are five themes essential to establishing (or re-establishing) differentiation. Collectively, they enable brands to become indispensable to consumers.1) Identify a Compelling Positioning
Positioning is the foundation of any brand strategy, and every brand must have a strategic positioning that is meaningful, compelling, unique, and credible. Without a differentiated positioning, brands have little hope of achieving differentiation in the marketplace. All brand expression and activation elements should be consistent with and informed by a brand's positioning.
The traditional brand positioning frameworks feature a target audience, a frame of reference, a primary customer benefit, and proof points. While this basic framework still has merit, dramatic changes in the brand activation environment have necessitated revisiting brand positioning to evolve some of these four components and add new ones.2) Craft a Brand-Inspired Experience
Crafting a brand-inspired experience is about creating touchpoints and a customer journey consistent with the brand positioning rather than an ideal experience. It is astounding how many companies set out to identify what they characterize as the "optimal customer experience" when crafting their brand-inspired experience. "optimal customer experience"—as if to imply there is only one.
In reality, customers are different and seek different types of experiences. A company should determine the optimal experience for each customer, inspired by—and consistent with—the brand positioning. This helps the company ensure that its brands achieve a meaningful difference in perception among consumers. It requires evaluating every touchpoint in the customer journey and shaping them to be consistent with the brand positioning.
3) Personalize the Offer
Delivering a brand-inspired customer experience is imperative to achieving brand differentiation, and personalization is one of the best ways to ensure an experience is distinctive and memorable. To personalize an offer, it's important to avoid making customers feel they are being mass-marketed. With advances in technology, greater creativity, and marketing sophistication, even the most mass-marketed brands can inspire customers to feel like they are more than a mere statistic or personal identification number.
4) Foster a Brand-Relevant Relationship
Brands need to form emotional connections with their customers. Technological advances, such as the internet and social media, have made it easier than ever for brands to do this. However, the type of relationship companies foster should match their brand positioning. In-person and online, brands must behave consistently with how customers view them. This will only happen when companies are sensitive to common etiquette and social norms in their interactions with people.
5) Push Boundaries on Growth
Brands can no longer settle for only incremental innovation in the form of "flavor of the month" line extensions; instead, they must also seek transformational, brand-inspired growth. While line extensions are important, breakthrough innovation distinguishes brands from one another and elevates their value. However, many brand owners struggle with how far they can (and should) stretch the bounds of their brand's extendibility. If they play it too safe, the likely result will be close-in, ho-hum extensions that underwhelm customers and are short-lived in the marketplace. Stray too far from the core positioning, and you risk diluting—or even irreversibly damaging—a brand's valuable equity. Striking the optimal balance between these extremes can help brands become more indispensable to customers and consumers.
Differentiation is key to success in any industry, and the factors outlined are essential for companies looking to differentiate their brands strategically. There are several important factors to consider when strategically differentiating your brand and positioning it for success.
Specifically, companies should seek to identify the optimal experience for customers that is inspired by—and consistent with—the brand positioning, personalize the offer in a way that makes customers feel as though they are more than a mere statistic or personal identification number, foster a brand-relevant relationship with customers that reflects the brand positioning, and push boundaries on growth to innovate and stand out from the competition.
While it may seem daunting, taking these steps will put your brand on the right path to achieving meaningful differentiation and long-term success.