In today’s cluttered and over-assorted market, the conversation in organizations often focuses on the importance of brand differentiation. The need to create or identify a position or particular area of emphasis that is different than what competitors currently offer customers. At face value, the idea of differentiation appears healthy and serves to foster crucial internal dialogue that can help shape and improve a company’s product or service.
But if you look deeper, the focus on differentiation as a driving discussion for a company or brand is flawed. The primary reason is that differentiation starts with a focus on what competitors are doing and not necessarily on what the customer wants, needs, or will value in your brand. The goal is not to be different from a competitor to compete but to be more valuable to a customer than your competitor. But “differentiation analysis” often doesn’t lead you in that direction, it tends to focus around what you shouldn’t do because someone else is already doing it, versus helping you identify what you should do to win more customers.
I encourage you to stop overemphasizing what your competitors are doing and to start focusing on what you can do to make your brand more desirable than your competitors in the eyes of your target consumers. And sometimes that means doing exactly what they are doing, only better.
As a guide, here are three core areas that you can explore to drive brand desire with today’s consumers.
At the top of Maslow’s famous hierarchy sit Esteem and Self-Actualization. And never has the need for being “actualized” (even if in a superficial way) been more transparent. Thank you, Selfie-Nation. Consumers make hundreds of purchase decisions a year based on whether or not a product helps them “feel” more personally confident and/or more “esteemed” within their social circles. There are dozens of other dimensions that play into self-esteem that we don’t have time to go through here, but a simple google search will help you find them.
Brands can increase value and win amongst their competitive set by creating products/services that enhance the self-esteem of their customers better than their competitors. Of course, the key is doing the customer field work necessary to identify which dimension(s) you need to enhance to elevate your impact.
Brands like Nike focus on making you believe you are your best athlete through brand positioning/advertising, businesses like LVMH focus on creating a sense of prestige through exclusivity/quality/pricing with their brands, Apple focuses on making you feel relevant/on-trend through design aesthetics/frequent product enhancements, and Starbucks elevates your feelings of sophistication through the product experience.
Do you think any of the above brands are worried about being “different” from their competitors or do you think they are focused on building, strengthening, and maintaining their positions in the eyes of their customers?
Being useful is still one of the most straightforward and most direct ways for a brand or business to succeed. To understand the potential of this dimension you have to define “utility” in its correct terms and understand the dimensions of “utility” as they affect the consumers in your particular industry.
In retail, utility comes in the form of low prices, broad assortments, convenience, ease of shopping, friendly staff, and the list goes on. In the automobile industry (excluding the luxury segment which operates first on self-esteem, and secondarily on utility), it can be horsepower, towing capacity, safety, technology integration, and other options.
One of my favorite recent examples of winning on utility is Uber. Uber revolutionized the taxi and car service industry by creating an incredibly useful new product. Now some have argued that Uber won on the cool factor, which would be connected to Self Esteem. And don’t get me wrong, it’s cool, and it helped you look even cooler among your social circle if you were an early adopter, but that is not why it grew so fast. It exploded because scheduling a car service for about the same price you could pay while standing on the corner waving your hand like a maniac was better in every way. You were not cold in the winter, hot in the summer, wet in the rain, the cars were cleaner, the drivers were more helpful, and they showed up when you wanted them too. Now that is useful.
My point here is that if the Uber leadership team had started by saying, how can we be different than the competition. I don’t think they would have landed on the current product. Their solution was a customer first approach (i.e., they were starting with how do you make the customers experience better in every way, not different). Disruption almost always rises from being customer centric.
This last dimension of desire has evolved rapidly over the last decade or so. I believe, in part, due to social media and the shared experience, it creates for all of us. As well as because some visionary leaders felt that doing good could be an essential part of good business.
In this space, brands are focused on finding ideas and belief systems that a group of consumers rallies around. It could be social consciousness, environmental consciousness, or even an activity like running or yoga. Several brands have capitalized successfully on this dimension over the last decade. Think Toms shoes for social well-being, or Lululemon and their fanatically Yogi base that establish a brand that has become so much more, or Method cleaning products and the environmentally minded with whom they connected. Although this area is arguably related to self-esteem at some level, it is a significant enough sub-area that I feel it should be broken out. Also, I view the focus here as being less self-centered than brands built around self-esteem.
Importantly, we are seeing significant brands use this area very differently than their traditional self-esteem models to build strong brand connections. Think the Superbowl ad by Budweiser where they show their factories being converted to “canned water” plants. Or, Aerie’s stand on no-retouching as a way to connect with the Body Positivity minded young women or P&G’s support of the mothers of Olympic athletes.
I share these frameworks because they are the ones I have used as a guide over the last 20 years and across six leading brands to help build “desired” and not necessarily “differentiated” brands.
Always start with your customer and not your competitors. I know this is easier said than done. We love to talk about our competitors because they are so knowable. Everything they do is documented so clearly in the products they make, the marketing they produce, and often the financial statements they publish.
Customers, on the other hand, are often difficult to know, their lives are less public, and even when they are (thanks again social media), it requires significant effort to aggregate it into digestible information. And even when you can see how they have behaved at large, it is still hard to understand their internal motivations and drivers. But that is where the ideas are that will help you build something truly “desirable.”
Fight the hard fight; it will be worth it in the end.
Brian Beitler has led the marketing teams for several leading brands including Kohl’s, Bath & Body Works, Hot Wheels, David’s Bridal, and Lane Bryant, among others. He believes in pushing brands to think differently about how they engage and earn loyalty from their customers, and is driven by the belief that the key to success is listening to your customers personally and first hand, and then combining those personal insights with big data to innovate your brand strategy, products, experience, and marketing. He is currently Chairman of the Board for the Global Retail Marketing Association.