Open space. White space. Unclaimed territory. You often hear these metaphors when discussions of brand positioning are on the table. Obviously, no one is talking about actual geographic positions here. We’re talking about positions in the market’s collective mind, otherwise known as mindshare. But, mindshare alone, as valuable as it may be, is not enough. It only means that the market knows who you are. That’s it. If Oprah Winfrey only had mindshare, it would just mean we know she’s a celebrity. But there’s so much more to know about her. She’s a media mogul, she’s a self-made billionaire, she’s universally beloved, etc. A business wants to be known, true. But a modicum of fame is not enough to build a powerful brand. You have to be known for something. Like Oprah is known for something. Like Malala Yousafzai is known for something. Like Elizabeth Taylor is known for something. We experience all three of these famous women in unique and memorable ways. We wouldn’t want any one of them to be more like another. That’s how a business needs to be perceived. That leads to a powerful brand.
I was recently invited to submit an outline for a publication entitled “5 things you need to do to create a believable, trusted and beloved brand”. The invitation quoted Seth Godin as defining a brand as “an implicit promise”. I think Mr. Godin has it about right – mmm, almost. And that's the problem with these kinds of queries. Everyone will be basing their submissions on a different definition of brand. There is no definition of "brand" that is universally accepted. But the whole exercise sounds like fun so I’m going to submit anyway. My five steps are at the end of this article. But we’ll have to start with my definition of what a brand is because that’s what informs my five points. I tell all my clients to memorize these six words: “A brand is a promise kept.” I tell them that’s the most profitable way that they could define the term when thinking about their brands. You have to know what your brand promise is. You have to communicate that promise to your market. And you have to keep your promise. To see how it works, let’s first parse the sentence.
Every business (or product, service, campaign, event, project, nonprofit, whatever) that needs to be marketed, has to do what it can to minimize competition and maximize income. This requires the organization in question to position itself properly within the vast landscape of brands that are out there. The world is full of other brands, competing, commanding attention, cluttering up the minds of buyers. In such a world, no brand can succeed for long if it is not positioned in a way that makes it most attractive to its best prospective customers while also putting its competition at a disadvantage. Proper positioning takes some effort. No one person can be in command of all the competing narratives in the world, so you can’t just trust your instincts alone. Every marketable asset needs a formal brand positioning statement.
The question comes up all the time. A widget manufacturer faces stiff competition. It struggles to find a way to differentiate its offerings. How can it find its market when all the customers seem to prefer the other guys? The answer lies in the old, baseball adage, “Hit it where they ain’t.” The competition can’t be all things to all people. They can’t be everywhere at once. Somewhere there’s an opening that this widget builder can exploit. It could be that, somewhere, there’s a portion of the market that is underserved by the big guys. That sector would welcome a new player that specializes in their concerns. Or it could be the challenger business builds its widgets with a distinguishing feature, or by using a new process or because of a unique history – or something. The differentiator is there. It always is. The trick is to sleuth it out.
I recently met with the owner of a consumer goods business – let’s call it OldCorp – that is 90 years old. It’s a family business. He’s the second generation at the helm. His parents bought the firm, in a distressed sale, during the Great Depression. Back then, very little attention was paid to branding. You just slapped a label on your product and went door to door, trying to get retailers to stock it. The family did well for themselves that way, growing the business into a regional player. Today, they’re a good, solid business, but still a regional player. That would be fine except, in the intervening decades, two competitors have grown to national prominence. One other has become a much better-known regional force. While OldCorp can still count on its regular customers to keep it going. It can’t grow because most consumers can name the top three brands in the market but can’t ever think of the fourth – OldCorp. It finds itself in the awkward position of being a 90-year-old challenger brand. Is it too late for it to make a run at the market leaders?
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