Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Branding in Highly Competitive Categories

Today, almost every category is a crowded category. Whether I am working with company, product, service, university, municipality or personal brands, it seems as though the majority of competitors are choosing to say the same things about themselves within their categories, rendering all of them undifferentiated. This is because most every category is mature and most every brand is informed by robust customer research.

For instance, I just returned from facilitating a "personal value proposition" workshop for MBA students. I was retained to help the students differentiate themselves in job interviews. In reviewing each student's personal value proposition, I found that more than half of the students chose to talk about some of the same personal qualities that would be important to employers. "I am a good team player." "I am a strategic thinker." "I have strong analytical skills." "I can get things done." "I can think 'out of the box.'"

This reminds me of work I recently did to help a business school create a differentiated brand. When I looked at what that school was saying about itself and what its primary competitors were saying about themselves, they were the same things. "We provide a career-focused education." "We prepare students for the global economy." "We emphasize leadership development." "Our student's are job ready on day one." "Our program has strong analytical and technology components." "We teach teamwork skills." "Entrepreneurship is an important part of our program."

And, if I think about the corporate brands that I have worked with, they also seem to orbit around a certain set of attributes - innovation, trustworthiness, responsiveness, customer-service orientation, high quality products, and more recently, brand purpose. 

This sameness even extends itself into specific product and service categories. Beverage brands seem to focus on the same things as do grocery store chains, pet food products, apparel brands and almost every other category of brands. 

So, what is a brand to do? Southwest Airlines picked "a sense of humor" as a differentiator, an unlikely benefit for an airline to try to own. I helped a bank pick a similar attribute - fun, again an unlikely differentiator. Interestingly, a global reinsurance company that I worked with was also known for its sense of humor. I worked with a children's beverage brand whose primary differentiator was that children considered it to be a toy as much as a drink.

But this is not the only type of unexpected differentiator. Let's go back to MBA students again. What if your point of difference was "I speak five different languages fluently" or "I have started three highly successful companies" or "I am a big picture thinker who is also highly detail oriented." Or what if your point of difference was "I am completely calm under the greatest pressure." Not every MBA student is able to or will say these things about him- or herself. 

My point is that there are still highly compelling points of difference for a brand to own despite great pressure to say the same things as your competitors because those things emerged as top customer needs from extensive research. 

I wish you great success in differentiating your brand.

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