In a world inundated with logos, taglines, and packaging, where it seems that everything that can be said or designed already has been, is it truly possible to differentiate your brand? And at what cost?
Think back to Econ 101 and the principle of comparative advantage. In simple terms, David Ricardo’s venerable theory asserts that you should continue to do what you do best, even when someone else can do it better/faster/cheaper than you can. Why? Because the opportunity cost of doing something you do less well is just too high.
The business strategy lesson here is clear, but what about the brand strategy implications? First, a matter of vocabulary: brand strategy isn’t about logos or taglines. It’s about defining the value you offer your constituents, communicating that value, and then delivering that value.
In an ideal world, you will have found an opportunity to provide something unique that is of value to a set of customers, and that intersection will be the basis for your brand strategy. Target realized that bargain shoppers still wanted style, and they vaulted past price-focused Wal-Mart in terms of esteem as well as investor returns.
In the real world, you may find yourself playing AMD to your particular sector’s Intel. You could try to stand out by positioning your brand on friendly customer service, but in an industry driven by processor speeds, you’d be bringing a knife to a gunfight. Look at New Coke – did anyone really care about innovation when it came to their cola? Apparently, quite the opposite. And what about DIVX’s creation of movies playable for 48 hours? No-returns was a good idea, but not at the expense of the whole point of renting a movie vs. going to the theater: being able to watch whenever the hell you want to.
Every brand should aspire to be special, but that doesn’t mean you should zig because others zag. Few and far between are the industries in which ‘there can only be one.’ Take a hard look at what it is you can do best, make sure it’s something your customers really want, and if someone else is already there, then work your ass off to beat them at their own game. It can be done, and it can lead to a strong brand. Just ask Costco, Airbus, Kayak.com, Agent Provocateur, or Boston Consulting Group.
Of course we’re simplifying things - in most sectors there are multiple drivers of preference, any of which could be fertile territory for positioning your brand. But our point is this: looking and sounding different is not the be-all and end-all of branding. Especially when it distracts you or your customers from that elusive brand-building grail: matching what you do best to what customers need most, communicating that promise of value effectively to all your constituents, and delivering that value consistently at every interaction.