I know quite a few professional types – lawyers, CPAs, bankers, etc. So I often hear of their struggles to differentiate their firms from their competition. A bank is a bank is a bank, right? They all offer the same checking accounts, savings accounts, lines of credit, safety deposit boxes, home loans, car loans, etc. They all hit you with fees one way or the other. Mid-sized law firms and accountancies often also suffer from this kind of apparent sameness. In a world of conservative suits, how does one stand out and become known? Other types of businesses, mostly in B2B, manufacturers and the like, also view themselves as “parity” brands. So I thought I’d jot down a few notes about the possible ways these kinds of businesses should reimagine themselves for distinction. You have to start by knowing your market.
A couple of years ago, Boardwalk was competing for a large piece of business, a brand refresh for a well-known resort and entertainment destination. After a lot of work on what, for us, was a huge proposal document (and two in-person presentations), we made it to the finalist stage along with two other competitors. To my dismay, I learned the other two were large, global consulting firms with resources that Boardwalk could only dream about. Worse, I knew their bids were likely to be three to four times more than what we proposed. Regular readers of this blog know how much I preach that you never want to be the least expensive option. I was commiserating with a friend over this state of affairs when he corrected me, “No, Kevin. You’re not the cheap option. You’re the boutique option.” It seems silly but, once he said that, everything seemed better. He made me realize that, in this context, “inexpensive” didn’t necessarily signify a second-rate solution. Rather, it meant the other two bidders had bloated overheads and, worse, an inflated evaluation of the worth of their expertise. I was no longer afraid of the final round of competition. I even had a pithy line about the client shouldn’t have to pay for the consultant’s Johannesburg office. Or something like that. I was ready.
Every marketable thing needs to find a market to love it. The ideal is to create love affairs such as the romance between Apple and Apple devotees, or between bikers and Harley Davidson, or between Lego and children everywhere. This is brand loyalty on steroids. To do this, one must identify, make and keep a brand promise that never fails to delight. And that requires careful positioning. 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 maximizes its attractiveness 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 brand needs a formal positioning statement.
When marketers set out to determine the best positioning for a brand, they often start by examining the market they’re targeting. They segment the market into the different groups of customers that might be enticed to purchase. Then they conduct a survey of the competitive environment. How are the competitors branding themselves? What kinds of relationships are they trying to build with the market? How do they want to be perceived? The end result of this kind of exploration, hopefully, is the identification of some sort of advantageous “territory” the brand can claim for itself. We often use this geographical metaphor of occupying a certain “space” but, of course, we’re really talking about establishing a beachhead in the market’s collective mind. We want to create a feeling or experience that comes to mind the moment one hears the brand’s name or sees its visual identity. The idea is: Whatever the competition is, we’re not that. We’re something different, something better. But, there’s a converse way of determining optimal positioning; one that relies less on defining the “territory” and more on knowing the customers in great detail. I’ve found that the two methodologies often compliment each other.
In a prior post (November 14, 2017) we talked about imagining a market as if it was a boy band. Let’s take the Beatles, which was the boy band from my youth. There was John, the artistic one; Paul the cute one; George, the spiritual one; and, finally, Ringo, the lovable, goofy one. Imagine your top three competitors – plus you. Describe each of the four companies with a single adjective. This is a difficult but worthwhile exercise because it really gets you thinking about the positioning of each company; it provides a clue to how the market perceives these brands. Take your time. Really dig down and think seriously about how these entities are viewed. Come up with that one word that authentically describes each one of them. OK, finished? Now, what if it turns out you’re the lovable, goofy one – and not one of the cool kids? What if that’s the authentic you but it’s not what you set out to build?
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