Relevance. Credibility. Differentiation. These are the basic building blocks of any branding effort. When you look at companies — large and small — that have been successful, you’ll notice strength, consistency and often superiority in those three areas.
Brand relevance is closely related to specialization and niche marketing. Because you can’t be relevant to everyone. My friend Preston Thompson painstakingly crafts high-end guitars for discerning bluegrass musicians who are looking for a very specific, classic, Martin-like sound.
Obviously, the Thompson Guitar brand is not relevant to those of us who don’t play the guitar. Duh! But it’s also NOT relevant to most guitar players. NOT relevant to pop stars or young, smash-grass musicians. Not even relevant to most blue grass guitarists.
Wisely, Preston and his team don’t worry about that. The Thompson Guitar brand IS relevant to the tiny, narrow niche of customers they’re looking for. Rather than casting a wide net, and trying to be relevant to a broad audience of musicians, they’re staying esoterically focused. Relevant to few, but highly valued.
The more focused you are, the easier it is to maintain relevance among the prospects who matter most.
Relevance is not an absolute. In fact, it’s a bit of a moving target. Ten years ago Blackberry was a highly relevant brand among young, upwardly mobile, hyper-busy professionals. Not anymore. Technological advances from Apple and Google wiped the Blackberry off the map. Such is life in the world of high tech… if you’re not innovating quickly your brand relevance will fall faster than you can say Alta Vista.
Relevance in the restaurant business is also ridiculously fleeting. Foodies, who are the bread and butter of the trendy restaurant scene, suffer from a severe case of “been there done that” syndrome. So when something new comes along, they’re gone and the hottest restaurant of the year gets quickly supplanted by the next great thing. The restaurants that thrive in the long run find an audience after the foodies have left the building.
Sears is still relevant to a very small audience of elderly consumers who have been buying appliances and tools there for 50 years. It’s NOT relevant to younger consumers who represent the future of commerce. High school age girls would rather be shot than caught shopping at Sears.
Sometimes entire categories experience a dip in relevance. Like what’s happened in the soft drink industry… bubbly drinks like Coke and Pepsi are not as relevant to young consumers who have taken to Glaceau Vitamin Water, Gatoraide, SoBe, Arizona Iced Tea and more than 50 other alternatives. It’s a function of choice, really. When I was growing up, we didn’t have all those choices. Just milk, or Kool Aid in the summer.
The more choices there are in your category, the harder it is to maintain relevance. It’s tough staying “on the radar” when there are so many new products, new companies, and new offerings being unveiled. How many of the 50 brands of flavored water do you think will be around ten years from now?
Being relevant equates to being meaningful. If your brand is meaningful, you’ll generate interest. People will desire it. And they’ll take action. That’s what you want: Interest. Desire. Action.
Many brands fail because they didn’t really mean anything to begin with. Others lose their meaning over time, often due to a lack of credibility.
Credibility begins by knowing yourself, your brand, and the core essence of your enterprise. You can’t stay true to yourself if you don’t know what you’re really about… your passion, your purpose and your promise. Write them down.
It’s been said that branding is about promises kept. That’s how you build trust and loyalty. So don’t bullshit people about what you can do or deliver.
Good sales people often gloss over the realities of delivery in order to get the sale. Like the famous line from an old FedEx ad… “We can do that. Sure, we can do that! (How we gonna do that?”) Every time you over-promise and come up short, your credibility takes a hit.
Instead, set realistic expectations. And if things do go wrong, don’t be afraid to say, “yeah, we really screwed up.” And do it quickly! In this world of social media you have to move fast to stay ahead of any bad news.
So let’s assume that you know yourself well and you’ve established a trusted brand. The easiest way to screw it up is to advertise something you’re NOT. Like a personal injury lawyer claiming to be friendly and honest.
And if you really want to compound the problem, try using a celebrity of questionable credibility. (Charlie Sheen) That’s a double whammy! Every brand affiliation reflects on your credibility.
Often what you’ll see is advertising based on wishful thinking rather than brand realities or customer insight. The ego of the business owner clouds the message that gets out and harms the credibility of the company. Ego is also a common culprit when it comes to differentiation… CEOs and business owners start thinking they can do anything.
The best brands take the conventional thinking of their industry and throw it on its ear, disrupting everything that came before. They discard the age-old excuse; “Yeah, but we’ve always done it this way.”
You cannot differentiate your brand by watching the rear-view mirror or by following the lead of others in your industry. Instead, try the convention-disruption model… Think about the standard operating procedures and practices of your industry, and do something else.
There are three key areas where differentiation can produce some dramatic business gains:
The best marketing programs begin with products designed to be different from the get-go. There are plenty of ice cream brands out there, but only one with the crazy, mixed-up flavors of “Late Night Snack.” Ben & Jerry’s continually differentiates itself with its creativity in the flavor department.
If you have me-too products you can still differentiate yourself through operational innovation. Be more efficient, more employee-friendly, more environmentally conscious, whatever. For Walmart procurement and supply chain management was the differentiator. That’s what enables them to keep prices so low.
Business Model Differentiation
This is a good option that applies mostly to start-ups. If you can find a better business model, and prove that it works, investors will notice. But keep in mind, consumers might not know the difference, so you still have to do other things well.
In crowded markets with many similar offerings it’s often the advertising and marketing programs that push one brand to the front of the pack. Additionally, in advertising circles there are three areas where you can differentiate yourself: Strategy, media, or creative execution.
Take AFLAC for instance… Before that obnoxious duck came along, no one even knew what supplemental insurance was. That’s creative differentiation. And no one else in that niche was running television. That’s media differentiation. The famous “Got Milk” ad campaign utilized a disruptive new strategy for the category, as well as exceptional execution.
RCD. Relevance. Credibility. Differentiation. Most companies are lucky to get one or two out of three. The greatest brands are three for three.