Differentiate Your Brand: How to Stand Out from Your Competition
“That which has been is what will be, That which is done is what will be done, And there is nothing new under the sun.” Ecclesiastes 1:9
It’s extraordinarily rare for any product to be truly unique or cutting-edge in the sense of having virtually no competition. Those who do will rarely stand alone for long. Such is the world of creative capitalism. And yet some brands manage to stand apart from all others, as if they are the only one truly occupying a given segment of the market. How do they achieve that? And how can you create a similar effect with your brand?
The short answer is to sell the experience.
Of course, that’s a lot easier to say than to do. Therefore, as we discuss how to accomplish this, we will also look at some examples from the German auto market. BMW, Mercedes Benz and Volkswagen are all automobile manufacturers; they all produce good quality cars; they are all German brands. If you didn’t already know something about their respective marketing campaigns, you might be hard-pressed to determine how they should differentiate themselves.
Are their products completely different? Do they function uniquely from one another? Do they have features that are so dramatically unique, so that the consumers’ lifestyle is drastically different with one brand versus another?
Not really. There’s actually quite a bit of overlap. And yet, we think of them as wholly distinct from one another. That is the power of smart brand differentiation.
That is what you want for your brand. And here’s how to get it.
Step 1: Identify Your Brand’s Unique Personality
Jot down a number of words or phrases that describe your brand’s personality, or what it stands for? Examples might include things such as: integrity, environmentally-friendly, relationship building, expert craftsmanship, performance, safety, fun. Try to include elements from each of the following categories:
Unique product features
The consumers’ experience (as you, the brand owner, want to portray it), and
How your product’s features, personality, or the consumer experience differ from those of your competitors?
Remember that even the most commoditized industries (such as milk and toilet paper) have been able to find ways to stand apart. Whether it’s milk from family farms, or those with responsible eco-stewardship policies, or it’s toilet paper that is vastly more soothing, sturdier, or more effective, seemingly identical products can differentiate themselves.
As an example, if we were to make a similar list for our three German auto manufacturers, we might come up with things such as these:
What’s interesting is that if you were to review the companies’ documents and press releases in which they discuss their brands, each one emphasizes things such as quality, safety, reliability and attractive styling. They are remarkably similar.
But the lists above are about consumer perception and brand personality, not necessarily product differences. (That’s not to say that these cars aren’t also somewhat different as products.) Do smart people drive Volkswagens? Is a BMW also luxurious and prestigious? Is a Mercedes safe? Of course. But that’s not how they generally represent their brands in advertising - which we will look at in a minute.
Step 2: Know Your Audience
Next, you need to determine your target demographics. Are you primarily marketing your product(s) to young urban professionals? To business executives who want to reflect their success? To busy mothers (or fathers) who look after the children and are the primary purchaser of household goods? Will the product appeal in large part to women versus men, or children versus adults? Consider potential differences in appeal due to:
- Global vs. domestic vs. regional
- Urban vs. suburban vs. rural
- Working professional vs. stay-at-home parent vs. student
- Outdoorsy vs. cosmopolitan
Don’t forget to consider what you believe that your target market cares about. It’s one thing to say that most people try to be environmentally responsible to one degree or another. It’s another thing to market a product (such as Subaru does) to the most outdoor/ adventure-loving, environmentally-minded cross-section of the car market.
If we were to consider the marketing of our three German auto companies, what might our demographic assumptions be?
Again, these are nothing more than possible consumer perceptions of each of these brands. Upper-class people drive Volkswagens. Young single people drive Mercedes-Benz. However, if you watch the advertising for each of these, those are clearly not the targeted demographics. Before we look at that, consider your own brand demographics. Use the list and examples above to jot down your primary market.
Now you are ready to create a differentiated brand strategy.
Step 3: Translate these Traits into Consistent Marketing
When you market your products to your targeted demographic, you want to be very consistent. That’s not to say that you can’t say something different about your products on occasion, or several things simultaneously. However, if one advertisement promotes the product’s safety; the next one, its reliability; the next one, its quality; the next one its prestigious design; the next one its universal appeal… what you end up with is marketing that either says nothing to consumers or leaves them terribly confused.
As we mentioned above, every one of our German auto makers sees its products as safe, technologically advanced, environmentally-conscientious, well-made with quality products, etc. If they were to each focus on all of those things, the market would see the products as interchangeable. What you want is to choose the top characteristics that represent your brand’s unique appeal and then do so consistently!
Likewise, though Mercedes is sometimes driven by young, single people, the target demographic is the upper-class/ upper-middle-class business executive who commutes to work. Don’t get hung up on the fact that someone in rural North Dakota might buy your product. If your product’s mass appeal will be to generation Xers who live and work in moderately-sized urban areas with breweries, that is your target. The vast majority, if not all, of your marketing should be aimed at this target group.
What these things accomplish is that they create a consistent brand perception. Over time, consumers will identify your product as being whatever your advertising strategy tells them that it is. Thus, perception becomes, to a very large extent, the public’s reality.
Once you’ve chosen these carefully, it’s time to convey this information to the public. You should do so via the following means:
As we examined above, much of our perception of the brand differences across our three German auto manufacturers boils down to experience. People buy products based on features and quality, which you will need to convey; but they also choose between different brands a very great extent based on a perceived difference in the relative experiences of each.
Let’s look at some advertising examples.
A classic example is the Mercedes S-Class, “King of the Jungle” commercial. Nothing says, I’m a leader, I’m in charge, like a lion driving an expensive car. This appeals to much of what we considered above: people who are often leaders in business, who care about image/ prestigious and who want to be surrounded by luxury.
BMW, in contrast, often advertises its products within a racing/ performance context. In conjunction with that, the company calls its cars, “The Ultimate Driving Machine,” emphasizing BMW’s reputation for speed, handling and technological capabilities. This appeals to people who like power and who see themselves as powerful. Hence the Christmas commercial above, in which the BMW car is paired with its [racing] motorcycle counterpart.
On the other side of the equation, Volkswagen knows that many of its consumers are either young people and/or families. And its advertising reflects this by featuring families driving together, parents teaching young teens to drive their first car - a Volkswagen, of course - or the commercial shown here, “The Force.” In this advertisement, a little boy [or girl?] wanders around attempting to use The Force on every time of the house, failing miserably until he manages to turn on the car [via his father pressing his remote start button, of course!].
This commercial is endlessly charming and relatable, but it should stand out as notably different from the others above. Here we see the average, American suburban family and a father who lovingly caters to his child’s imagination. The brand’s personality and demographics are clearly conveyed.
Brand Identity-Specific Pricing
You might think that pricing is necessarily a given, based on the product costs plus some form of markup. But that’s not necessarily the wisest marketing strategy. Imagine that you’re Mercedes Benz and, due to magical powers of innovation, you are able to reduce your costs so much that it costs less to produce an S-class car than a Chevy Nova.
You might be tempted to reduce the price of the car to a much lower price point than that of your competitors, thinking that your consumers will thank you for saving them money.
But they won’t.
Why? Because you’ve forgotten your brand image and your target demographics. You’re marketing a car that’s supposed to be luxurious and refined, to business leaders who want a status symbol that reflects their achievements.
By reducing the price you’ve done two things: you’ve made the car more accessible to other socio-economic market segments and you’ve signaled that the car is worth less [even though, of course, nothing has changed quality-wise]. If your customers want to convey their financial success in life, they, by definition, want a more expensive car, a car that most people cannot afford. And though it sounds egotistical, that’s what this demographic is looking for.
Of course, they also expect the finest finishes and quality engineering to accompany that price tag. But that’s the point: they are shopping for a certain type of product at a certain price point. Your pricing needs to reflect both the brand’s image and what your specific consumers want.
If you’re selling a Volkswagen (“The People’s Car”), your strategy will be quite different. This brand conveys quality at an accessible price - one that is more universally appealing. In that case, you want the price to be somewhere in a very comfortable mid-range.
However, if you had the same magical innovative powers as above, you still wouldn’t want to price your Volkswagen at $5000, even if you could. Why? Because it comes across (relative to the rest of the market) as “cheap.” There’s a huge difference between quality at a reasonable price, and cheap. The last thing you want is for your consumers to question your quality because the price is unreasonably low. But you also don’t want the car to lose its widespread affordability by pricing it too high.
In all cases, you must consider your competitors’ pricing, your underlying costs and your consumers’ expectations. Price sends a message about the product. Use it to your advantage.
Use Demographic-Specific Promotion Channels
And lastly, remember that your target audience and your brand’s image should dictate how and where you promote your product(s). It goes without saying that it would be odd to open Town & Country [magazine] and see an advertisement for Kia or Chevy. Likewise, it’s probably a waste of advertising money to market a BMW in Real Simple [magazine].
But the same goes for timing and mediums. If your target market looks something like our Mercedes Benz market above, a television advertisement at 5:30pm is not necessarily the most effective. Why? Because most business leaders are still in the office at 5:30pm, not watching TV. However, advertising for products aimed at the busy stay-at-home parent can air during the day - when the parents are home doing chores or helping kids with their homework. They should also show up in the types of periodicals that this market segment reads. A stay-at-home parent might read Better Homes and Gardens or DIY Network magazines.
If you’re trying to reach younger market segments, remember that Millennials are often more digital than any other segment. That means that they’re the least likely to read newspapers or magazines, or to watch cable programming, and the most likely to be on social media and on the internet. In that case, a targeted social media campaign or other online advertising is most likely the most effective.
Do your market research and ask advertisers to provide you with the demographics of their readers and users. This will give you the knowledge you need in order to make the best use of your advertising dollars.
As you can see, any brand can differentiate itself from its competitors. It might take more imagination in some industries, and the nature of the differentiation might shift over time - like Apple’s has - or it might remain relatively similar - as our examples above have.