It takes bravery to build a truly distinctive brand

There is chronic underinvestment in brand building. Not only is it a long game that doesn't yield immediate gains, it's also harder to measure. But, for the brave and patient, there's also a big opportunity to be had.

It takes bravery to build a truly distinctive brand

There is chronic underinvestment in brand building. Not only is it a long game that doesn’t yield immediate gains, it’s also harder to measure. But, for the brave and patient, there’s also a big opportunity to be had.

Think of a mobile phone company. Which brands spring to mind? I’ll bet you it’s one of two, perhaps three. Apple, Samsung, and, for the nostalgic, Nokia. 

This is the acid test of brand strength: whether you’re front of mind when your category is mentioned. Buyers can typically recall between three and five brands in any one category and, as a result, these companies will attract the majority of potential business in play.

Why? Because when decision makers at companies go to their CEO and ask to spend five- or six-figure sums of their money on your product or service, you don’t want the CEO to turn around and say: who?

Businesses will default to the largest, safest choice. The phrase ‘no one ever got fired for buying IBM’ is a cliche for a reason.

To trigger brand recall, you have to be memorable. And to be memorable, you have to go against the grain. 

Distinct is memorable

Being distinct ‘ by which I mean recognisably different from other businesses of a similar type ‘ is far easier said than done, particularly when you’re operating in a highly-regulated industry such as financial services or insurance, where there’s little wiggle-room to offer a truly standout service.

So, if you’re struggling to define what makes your company different, it can help to identify the what, the how and the why of your business. Start by asking yourself if what you do, or the combination of services, is meaningfully different to your competitors?

If you’ve no luck there, consider how you do business: is there something different or unique about the way you work with clients? This can be one of the most useful areas to focus on when trying to differentiate your brand, as it tends to be the thing you can adjust the most.

If neither of these avenues are fruitful, you can turn to the why: thinking about why it is you’re in business in the first place. Though there is some debate about whether this purpose-led approach really resonates with customers, it may be one that works in your category.

After this, think about your message, which needs to be consistent, relevant to your customers and not easy to confuse with your competitors. Brands doing this well include software company Basecamp, which positions itself as the all-in-one toolkit for working remotely which, I think you’ll agree, resonates far more than ‘digital workplace’ or ‘project management and communication software’. 

Rather than focusing on the tools they offer, Basecamp’s messaging focuses on how people feel when using their software. Its homepage reads: Before Basecamp: Projects feel scattered, things slip, it’s tough to see where things stand, and people are stressed. After Basecamp: Everything’s organized in one place, you’re on top of things, progress is clear, and a sense of calm sets in. It’s an unusual approach for a software company, and so both fresh and memorable.

Another approach is to find something to take stand on. What hasn’t been said in your industry that needs saying? What do your competitors keep getting wrong? It takes guts to be an industry deviant which is why so many brands shy away from it. But it also means there’s an opportunity to be seized by those willing to go against the grain.

Be warned, this may well turn some people off. But it’s generally better to be remembered by 50% of your audience than ignored by 100%.

A marathon, not a sprint

Getting people to notice, and then remember, your brand is no easy feat – certainly a marathon, not a sprint. That’s why brand building is chronically underinvested in. It’s often neglected in favour of more easily-measurable strategies that deliver immediate gains (and make marketing folk look good). 

However, internal tests by LinkedIn found that clients who ran brand and sales activation campaigns together achieved a six times higher conversion rate for lead generation.

For the tortoises, not the hares, there are large rewards to be reaped.

Jason Ball
Jason Ball

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