Brand as Differentiation

How to rock that sh!t

Victoria Lefevers on December 10, 2015 • 6 minute read

By trade and experience, I’m a competitive strategy nerd, not a marketing pro. So the idea of “brand” has always seemed to be hand-wavey marketing speak to me. Through business school and beyond, everyone seemed to “get” what brand is, but no one could succinctly define it for me. I recently had a couple conversations with marketers around what their definitions of brand were, and they told me things that ranged from “perception of your company” to “a sign of business credibility and endurance.”

Those explanations still didn’t really resonate with me though – sure, what others think of your company seems important, but why does it matter? Cue Scott Kabat, former CMO of Prezi: according to him, brand is an “important yardstick by which you make decisions in a wide range of functional areas across the business.” This explanation allows us go beyond the simple notion of brand as visibility and perception; instead, brand is a competitive differentiator.

And competitive differentiators, I get. Differentiators are, at their heart, product or business decisions that provide you with a winning advantage over the competition. I like to call differentiators “the shit in the garden.” Why? One, because I like to cuss, and two, because you can have the best seeds (products) in the world, but without some awesome manure (differentiators) you’ll get some crappy flowers (results). The great news is that anything can be a differentiator so long as it provides customers with more perceived value (and hopefully, actual value) than a competitor. So brand as differentiator? That works for me.

If brand is ultimately a differentiation card for you to play, you have to define what a “successful” brand looks like – and figure out how to build it. Not sure where to start? Here are a couple tips from some of my favorite marketing pros.

Define why your company exists.

Agata Celmerowski, VP of Marketing here at Databox posits that the most important element of building a successful brand is an understanding of “why” your company exists — because if you’re clear on that, you hopefully have some knowledge about your market and customers already. Plus, the more of this customer knowledge that you have, the more the story of “why” can practically tell itself, which is a critical part of making sure there’s a shared understanding of your brand.

Simon Sinek points out that the story of “why” connects to the decision-making part of our brain – meaning that defining your company story is the key to getting customers to buy-in. I like to think of the “why” as the thing that defines your shit in the garden as grade-A organic no-hormone grass-fed cow manure, rather than what a neighbor’s dog left there. It’s super potent and great at producing vibrant color in your flowers, while hopefully avoiding any awkward neighbor (or customer) interactions.

Make sure your story is consistent.

This one seems obvious. But why is consistency in brand so important in the first place? If you’ve ever gardened, then you know that your fertilizer needs to be just right every year to get great flowers on a regular basis. But… maybe one year, there’s some chicken poop in there. Maybe it’s a little too fresh (and smelly, ugh). At that point it doesn’t matter how much you use, or how well you turn your soil, that shit’s just not good enough to get your flowers to grow like they should. Consistency is important to continually get good results.

Here’s another reason why consistency is important: according to Kabat, brand is loyalty – a loyalty earned by connecting with the customer in a very “visceral” way that truly resonates with them. That stems from making an emotional connection to user needs, which can be far more valuable and long-lasting than simply appealing to logic. But that kind of loyalty doesn’t come without expectations of behavior. So it stands to reason that in order to sustain customer loyalty, you have to be consistent in your brand – in other words, you need to stay true to the behavior that earned you that loyalty in the first place. McKinsey suggested there are three areas in which to focus your work on brand consistency: customer journey, customer emotions, and customer communication. Regardless of whether you’re a multinational corporation or a startup, you can benchmark consistency along those dimensions by asking yourself three questions:

  1. Do we seem like the same company every time a customer interacts with us?
  2. Do our customers trust us?
  3. Do our customers feel we are delivering what we promise?

If the answer to any of those questions is “no”, you’ll need to revisit that particular issue and ask yourself what you need to do to fix that shit. Is it something easily addressed, like a design issue? Or is it something more pervasive – is your customer support experience destroying customer goodwill, or does your product not meet the expectations of your sales pitch? No matter your situation, be prepared to regularly revisit these questions to evaluate whether or not your brand is consistent.

Get buy-in across the organization.

Your organization’s understanding of and belief in your story is paramount in getting customers to, well, give a shit (no pun intended).

Take a page from Kabat’s playbook. He advocates that there should be a structure and cadence for data and brand teams to work together to help build and reinforce the company story. The end goal is to get the teams to riff off each other and share in the branding work, since their work product together will be exponentially stronger than if one team tackled it alone. In other words, get the kids in a room, define the rules for them, and let them figure it out. By working together towards substantiating your company’s story, they’ll become a part of the story, which is the best sort of buy-in you could ask for. Instead of just marketing your flowers, they’ll start helping you plant those seeds in your garden and spread that Grade-A manure around.

In the end, the results of this buy-in will hopefully speak for themselves in the form of a cohesive story that truly attracts and retains customers. If it’s successful, the company’s story will reinforce itself and your colleagues will be even more jazzed to spread that shit around.

So there’s my take on how to successfully build a differentiated brand. If you’re curious about how other companies have built successful brands, Hubspot highlighted 10 companies who exude excellence in their brand differentiation. Which one of these brands use free-range manure and which ones use every day crap? Let me know your thoughts in the comments, or tweet @vlefevers.

About the author
Victoria Lefevers is a competitive intelligence pro with a passion for building communities of knowledge. By day, she leads competitive intel for Carbonite in Boston. By night, she can be found sipping a nice pinot noir while reading something incredibly nerdy.
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