How am I different? Why should anyone choose my business? What do I offer that is unique or special? These are some of the most difficult questions for entrepreneurs to answer. But in the age of unlimited consumer choice, the answers are what makes one brand successful and dooms another to failure.
Brand identity is much more than a description of products and services. Thousands of retailers offer similar stuff, but the pricing, customer service, physical environment and marketing completely differentiate them in the minds of consumers.
How many stores sell blue sweaters? You’ll find blue sweaters at Saks Fifth Avenue, Forever 21 and Old Navy, but you probably won't find the same customers at those stores — these businesses have differentiated their brands to respond to the psychological needs of different groups. Every entrepreneur must do the same. The sweaters may be slightly different — the fabrics won’t be the same and they may be cut differently — but the products are fundamentally identical. It is not the product but rather the value created in the mind by the brand that allows Saks to charge ten times more than Old Navy for a blue sweater.
In order to build a successful brand you must be willing to set your business apart. But this can be hard to do because we examine our businesses through our personal, human ideas of popularity. We want to belong to groups and teams. As kids we become fearful of setting ourselves apart; after all, sometimes “different” means “strange” and it can be easy to ridicule someone who is unusual. But a business is not a person, and we can’t let our fear of standing out from the crowd affect how we create a brand.
Calling attention to your business is the only way that customers understand what you have to offer, and differentiating yourself from the competition is the best way to build a customer base in this age of innumerable brands.
So we’re back to the basic question: What makes your company unique? Why should I do business with you? When it's time for you to claim your own patch of ground in the public mind, there are a few avenues you can pursue that make this process easier.
- One way to differentiate your business is by telling a unique story. If your company has a story to tell it will most likely be completely different from any other. Some entrepreneurs have taken their personal histories and made them into brands. Others use the product itself as a kind of story. Does your company have a story to tell? What’s the best way to tell it?
- Some brands create distinctive rituals. The way you use a product can become very ritualized; the way we eat, dress and care for ourselves are good examples. Food often creates a kind of ritual. Some companies have taken the idea of ritual a step further and created habits that keep customers coming back for more. Is there a ritual hiding in your company that can become the face of your brand?
- Can your brand establish a new community? Some brands are so unique that they inspire followers who become far more than customers — they become advocates for products and services as they align their own identities with the brand. Can your brand become a banner that leads your customers?
- Brands can create styles all their own. A company can develop a unique aesthetic that takes up residence in the mind. Even products that you might think of as commonplace can transform themselves with a touch of style. Look around your home — does your furniture look like it came from a particular store? When you go into your closet, is it easy to tell what designers you favor? These brands have chosen a particular style that appealed to you, and any company can do the same.
- We have become consumers of experiences. As commerce has grown and evolved we have taken the most mundane activities and transformed them into unique experiences that can be easily identified and create a new brand in the mind. Restaurants have turned eating into theater, and movie theaters have turned entertainment into a culinary experience. Even visiting the dentist has become more like a day at the spa. Can your products transform into a memorable moment?
- Do you turn heads when you walk into a room? Does your own personality deserve a brand? If your reputation precedes you, it may be that the best way to define your brand is through yourself. Many brands have done this over the years and, although it can be tricky, sometimes the most effective brand is the face of the founder. Other brands choose characters — both fictional and real — to distinguish their brands. Regardless of who you choose, adopting a personality for your brand can be an effective way of drawing a distinction between you and your competition.
Over the next several days we will be looking at each of these approaches in more depth. I hope you will be able to use these ideas to find your own path to an individual presence in the minds of your customers — a unique, memorable brand.