Branding Strategy Insider helps marketing oriented leaders and professionals like you build strong brands. BSI readers know, we regularly answer questions from marketers everywhere. Today we hear from Anna, a Product Manager in Stockholm, Sweden who writes…
“I have recently become the product manager of a pharmaceutical product. This product is 1 out of 8 in the Nordic market. All products but one are original. The biosimilar product markets itself on price, however due to very aggressive marketing they have been taking the market by storm. The product category is old, tried and tested and all substances are pretty much exactly the same. The differentiation is in the administration device. Two products have clear product advantages (in the administration device) that are of real value for the patient. Mine doesn’t. In fact there is nothing of value that my product has that no one else hasn’t. Our price is OK but my team is struggling to convince the doctors to use it when better alternatives are available. We currently have about 5% of the market and I am failing to reach my year-end target. I have 5 months left to change strategy, inspire my sales team and turn this around. If I do, I will be the first one to ever bring us above 5% market share.
To add to the challenge the previous PM had somewhat of a cluttered style. I have cleaned up the messaging to focus on the only thing that I can see sets us apart, our product was the first of its kind on the market (however we are marketing it under a license from the company that invented it). Furthermore, we have been ordered from HQ to have a short term approach in our marketing and my budget is small. At the moment the bulk of the budget is spent on conferences and educational events for the doctors. A price only strategy is not an option since we could never compete on price in the long term.”
Thanks for your question, Anna. Many brands share your brand’s dilemma. The product itself is a commodity. That is, it is undifferentiated from competitive alternatives. First, I would direct you to our blog posts on branding commodities. They list a number of general approaches for differentiating commodities.
When Rosser Reeves first proposed the Unique Selling Proposition many decades ago now, the world was a very different place. Products still had the potential to actually be different, advertising was largely confined to mainstream channels and brands were, for the most part, identifiers. But with the evolution of best-practice manufacturing, the fragmentation of channels and the increasing development of brands as monikers for consumer lifestyle, I can’t help wondering whether the USP is now redundant.
Clearly I’m not the only person whose had thoughts along these lines. In a lengthy and detailed post, Paul Simister summarizes and evaluates the arguments he’s seen advanced by others to replace the USP. Among the suggestions:
- A short statement to differentiate your business based on what you stand against.
- USPs don’t exist in markets where the businesses are more interested in copying each other than in being different.
- Create a Unique Story Proposition that focuses on what matters to the customer and what matters to you
Ironically as the performance pressures on CMOs mount, the onus to achieve differentiation, given the evolution of market dynamics and economics, has never been greater … or harder. I think though that we must now assume that any product that shows any level of distinction will in time be caught, matched and even surpassed by its rivals. So the future doesn’t lie in fashioning competitor-proof products. Nor does it lie in fashioning slogans that capture people’s imagination. It seems to me that too many people are trying to evolve an outdated formula to a landscape that bears no resemblance to the context within which it was fashioned.
For some time now, brands have pursued difference. Spurred on initially by Jack Trout, they’ve positioned, disrupted, innovated…all with that elusive goal in mind. To stand out and stand apart from their competitors. Benefits, positioning, pyramids, strategies…a lot of time and energy has gone into trying to help brands achieve difference. Everyone’s been on that quest to become a Purple Cow.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m a Seth Godin fan and, inspired by that, the call for differentiation has been a recurrent theme in my own work, but there’s no denying that for the most part marketers have failed to live up to Godin’s call to recolor the livestock. Nigel Hollis has written previously here on Branding Strategy Insider that less than 1 in 5 brands is seen as distinctive by consumers.
One can of course read that as proof that Godin’s call is as relevant (and challenging) as ever. Or one can take it as meaning that the quest for difference is simply not one that works for the majority of marketers.
Three reasons why remarkable difference might be unattainable:
- Marketers get tempted into pursuing difference for difference’s sake and take their eye off the very people who buy their brands.
- Difference isn’t a motivation for consumers. People don’t go to the supermarket to buy what’s different. They buy what they know and what appeals to them. They buy what they remember. Different or not.
- In a world of product parity, increasing regulation, impatient investors and embedded management orthodoxy, meaningful difference is too hard to achieve. Consider this characteristically provocative statement from Mark Ritson: “[True] repositioning is almost always impossible. No matter how attractive it appears or how commonly we use the term in marketing, the actual business of changing a brand’s DNA and being successful is ridiculous…actually changing a brand from black to white…is a ludicrous notion. Even when you can fool the people into believing the change has occurred…you cannot change the fundamental nature of the way a brand does business.”
So what’s the alternative? Conformity? Hardly. Perhaps a little more latitude – and more focus on the human condition.
I have written about creating “category-of-one” brands before. Most brands spend their time trying to increase their share of existing markets. They pursue many different tactics to do so, from innovating new product functions and features and offering price promotions (which erodes brand equity) to improving product quality and creating value-added services. Some even create highly entertaining ads hoping this will help them break through the category messaging clutter. The problem with these approaches is that they are incremental and most of them can be very easily matched by the competition.
Brand managers know how difficult it can be to create brand differentiation within an existing category. In mature markets, every market position has already been taken. True breakthroughs come only from creating entirely new categories, highly compelling new categories.
So, how does a brand manager achieve this?
- Break customer compromises. In the Harvard Business Review article “Breaking Compromises, Breakaway Growth”, CarMax is a good example of a company that methodically broke the compromises that brands in the used car buyer category routinely made with their customers. Amazon.com broke compromises as well and created the first global megastore open 24/7.
- Redefine the category in a radically new way. In the book Blue Ocean Strategy Cirque du Soleil is an example of a brand that created a new category of entertainment. It falls into the “circus” category, but this brand has skillfully crafted a highly valued and differentiated positioning as everything a circus is not. There are no tents, tigers and elephants. No ringmasters. Instead it borrows attributes from other entertainment categories like, dance, music, opera and theater. It becomes something all together different–far outside the bounds of a conventional circus.
- In an industry defined by functional categories, redefine your space by customer end benefits. My Alma Mater, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, chose to redefine itself from a technological university (or engineering school) to a place where people could go to change the world through technological innovation (why not change the world?®). Similarly, Paul Smith’s College did this by refocusing on the end benefit of being THE college that allows one to live and play in the six million acre Adirondack Park while receiving a college education (The College of the Adirondacks ®).
- Create an entirely new category, enabled by technological breakthroughs. The Internet enabled eBay to create more efficient markets through a global online auction platform. Apple ushered in the smart phone category with the iPhone.
Everybody wants a brand that’s different. The irony of that statement is intentional. It belies the conservative manner in which most brands approach competitive difference. They say they want to be distinctive to consumers but often, in their heart of hearts, they actually want to align (read conform) with the rest of the industry. One of the key issues for that is an uncertainty on the part of brand makers and decision makers to find a starting point.
In some ways that’s actually less difficult and daunting than it first appears. Begin with a premise that is truly one degree away from your rivals. By logically progressing that premise over time, and with strong discipline, you will build a brand that is consistently and markedly different.
Here’s 50 ways you can create a meaningful difference for your brand:
- Go slow in a world of speed. Each Rolex takes a year to manufacture. The perception that a longer process is needed to build the world’s best timepiece also reinforces the value.
- Use country of origin to your advantage. Brands from Switzerland are highly associated with precision and fine craftsmanship. Seek to build brand associations with countries that support your reputation for service, manufacturing, innovation etc.
- Behave differently. Online shoe retailer Zappos has built its advantage on an iron clad return policy and customer service that goes above and beyond, breaking down the perceived barriers of selling and buying shoes online.
- Look different. Apple always looks like Apple. Diesel always looks like Diesel. Absolut Vodka always looks like Absolut. They’re in a sector but they don’t look like part of the sector.
- Be the underdog in a sector where everyone else wants to be top dog. Nantucket Nectars started “with only a blender and a dream,” and Clif Bar proclaims that its founder once lived in a garage. Underdogs win the compassionate consumer. Look for the underdog story you can tell.
- Be truly and unapologetically shocking. Benetton’s “Unhate” campaign ruffled feathers on almost every front. But – and this is critical – the outrage you generate must link to a solution and that solution should be your front. Otherwise, you simply risk shouting into the wind.
- Expand your appeal. “Discover” an untapped audience in your sector and, by drawing them in, intensify the sense of community around your brand and the interaction that people have with the brand. Enterprise Rent-A-Car did just that by offering leasing at a time when competitors did not. By serving this unmet need with attention to customer experience, Enterprise became the world’s number 1 car rental company. Apple too saw what others did not. No one was asking for an iPhone, but an untapped audience emerged when new value in the form of a cell phone was introduced.
- (Re)Invent a category – and own it. UFC became the fastest growing sports organization in the world by redefining the reach and the audience for mixed martial arts. Today, UFC produces more than 30 live events annually and is the largest pay-per-view event provider in the world. Swatch differentiated from other watch brands by focusing on self-expression rather than precision.
- Create a new category. The Toyota Prius, the Nintendo Wii, and Red Bull are all brands that created new categories, outside the established norms of their product category. By stepping outside the bounds of their categories, these brands created a space that they can call their own.
- Tell a story that defines you and is unique to you. The story may be about your founder as in the case with Virgin and Richard Branson, your heritage like Hickory Farms or the value you bring to the world like Coca-Cola’s Open Happiness. It may also be based in imagination – like the thought that Keebler elves make Keebler cookies. Or perhaps it’s a story based on your highly guarded secret – only two people in the world know Coca-Cola’s formula. Your story may also be about the source of your product, service or inspiration.
- Forge new ground in the spirit of your founder. Chanel continues to personify the philosophies, ideals and legend of Coco Chanel long after her death.
- Leverage your history to define tomorrow. National Geographic have redefined what it means to experience the world we never see by expanding their channels and offerings while still holding their history close.
- Own an eternal idea. Red Bull expresses in every action its belief in, and addiction to, excitement. Ingredients, spirit, sponsorships and the human desire to do things that make the heart race are inextricably linked. Dove owns and serves the idea of real beauty. lululemon finds its eternal idea in the mind state of yoga and has built a powerful athletic apparel brand on that concept.
- Change the possibilities. This is about more than just product innovation. It’s about the introduction of technologies that completely change how people can live. Boeing redefined travel forever with the 747. Google may well redefine how we can see with Google Glass. Dyson changed the possibilities by reinventing old technologies like the vacuum, hand dryer and fan.
- Make active plans to be where others aren’t (yet). This article looks at the fact that while Chinese consumers are now overwhelmed by Western brands and doing business in Greater China has become very expensive, other countries in Asia with booming economies like Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines remain largely overlooked.
- Solve a global problem. “Big bang” solutions in areas like pharmaceuticals or biotechnology require huge investment and scary timeframes, but when they work, they deliver huge distinction, kudos and profits. A “Big Bang” solution can come from any brand — TOM’s (pictured) seeks to solve the problem of children without shoes. TOM’s matches every pair of shoes purchased with a pair of new shoes for a child in need. One for One.
- Build groundswell. Do something startling to generate attention. Use attention to build a crowd. Use a crowd to gain credibility. Use credibility as the jumping off point for your next distinctive act. Red Bull, Virgin and Apple should come to mind.
- Redefine how people buy. With millions of products, 24/7 access, superior search and browse technology, user reviews and many other sources of in-depth product information, Amazon.com offers a superior purchase experience.
- Bring unprecedented optimism to a sector. Nike redefined what people believed they should be capable of.
- Connect the previously unconnected. LinkedIn brought business people together so that they could network and share ideas in a way that was effortless, credible and global. In doing that, they resolved a problem that no-one realized they had until they saw the potential for what they would now be able to do.
- Rewrite the experience. Southwest Airlines put the fun, the quirkiness and the savings back into the serious and process-packed world of travel. Starbucks differentiated not on coffee, but a ‘third place’ – a respite between home and work.
- Make what you sell feel even more personal. This great infographic hints at how much further retailers could take personalization.
- Link your brand to specific occasions. Habits are powerful, but occasions may be even more so. They engage us so effectively because they combine time and focus. And because of that, they provide permission – it’s OK to behave this way or that. It’s OK to do something you wouldn’t do on any ordinary day. De Beers, Hallmark, Mercedes, Hershey, Cadbury, MACY’s and others have tapped into occasions or created occasions and have made themselves synonymous with the celebration of those occasions.
- License to brand. Brand licensing can bring valuable new meaning to a brand, further differentiating it from its competitors. Pillsbury licenses the Cinnabon brand to do just that for its cinnamon rolls. Colgate licenses Disney characters to increase its brand appeal.
- Break away from conventional wisdom. Breakaway brands bring new meanings to the party and make the most of the stretch, holding on to enough of the old to avoid category defection. Breakaway brands stretch the boundaries and live as outliers. These brands are the opposite of the well-behaved brands in the category and consequently provide radical differentiation from the status quo. Cirque du Soleil is one such brand. It falls into the “circus” category, but this brand has skillfully crafted a highly valued and differentiated positioning as everything a circus is not. There are no tents, tigers and elephants. No ringmasters. Instead it borrows attributes from other entertainment categories like, dance, music, opera and theater. It becomes something all together different–far outside the bounds of a conventional circus.
- Change the name. Sometimes your original name doesn’t sound like it would be something you would want to put in your mouth. Like a Chinese gooseberry. When the name was changed to kiwi fruit, the world suddenly had a new favorite fruit that it wanted to put in its mouth.
- Personify. The Green Giant character became the difference in a family of vegetables in many forms. Frank Perdue became the tough man behind the tender chicken. The Gecko became the much-loved spokesperson for GEICO.
- Create a new item. The cantaloupe people wanted to differentiate a special, big cantaloupe. But rather than call them just plain “big,” they introduced Crenshaw melons. Tyson wanted to sell miniature chickens, which doesn’t sound very appetizing. So it introduced Cornish game hens.
- Reposition the category. Pork was just pig for many years. Then the industry jumped on the chicken bandwagon and became “the other white meat.” That was a very good move when red meat became a perceptual problem.
- Identify, identify, identify. Ordinary bananas became better bananas when a small Chiquita label was added to the fruit. Dole did the same for pineapple with the Dole label, as did the lettuce people by putting each head into a clear Foxy lettuce package. Of course, you then have to communicate why people should look for these labels.
- Be the expert or specialist. The specialist can focus on one product, one beneﬁt, and one message. This focus enables the marketer to put a sharp point on the message that quickly drives it into the mind. Domino’s can focus on home delivery. Pizza Hut has to talk about its different pizzas, home delivery, and sit-down service.
- Price with pride. Starbucks prices its coffee higher to raise perceptions of the quality of its coffee. Singapore Airlines, the most profitable airline in the world, does the same thing and always sells at a premium. In each case, the price is a signal of supremacy – differentiation via perceived quality.
- Use Ingredient Brands. The North Face uses Gore-Tex technology to differentiate. In the PC space the Intel brand adds to the product’s perceived performance. Each brings noticeable differences in their own right.
- Highly target a market. Who you focus on can create a unique point of difference. Consider FOX News, an American news outlet designed to serve the Republican Party and its supporters. This laser focus has made it synonymous with conservative views and policies, creating by far the strongest commercial brand associated with those views. Wegmans Supermarkets believes that happy customers are generated by happy employees. They have built their powerful brand on the mantra that their employee’s are number one.
- Change the reach. How your product or service reaches a customer can set you apart. Redbox specializes in the rental of DVD’s and video games. Through an easy to use kiosk it differentiates from its competitor Netflix and helped seal the fate of Blockbuster. Amazon has a futuristic plan to deliver some orders via drone.
- Give unprecedented access. The reason people flew Concorde was the opportunities that could come from who you would sit next to. You weren’t paying for a faster flight, you were paying for the company. Country clubs in Asia are the same. It’s not about the game of golf; it’s about the networking. For Citibank’s Citi Private Pass card holders the unique value is in the preferred access at entertainment events.
- Share values. When a brand is built on shared values it can differentiate on those values and enjoy perhaps the strongest bond in the marketing world. Think of any brand that really matters and you’ll discover the type of people buying the stuff are the same type of people who design, make and sell the stuff. This is the awesome sauce of brand values and brand identity alignment. Apparel brands like Patagonia, L.L. Bean, and The North Face understand the importance of shared values. The bond that binds is a deep inter-personal connection between the users and the makers.
- Stand for something your customers want to stand for. In the same manner as the enthusiast apparel brands mentioned in #37, Kashi cereal customers see themselves, their values, and their identities in complete harmony with the Kashi brand. They’re one and the same. Likewise, the Kashi people care about the same stuff as their consumer– greater health and well-being for themselves and the planet. For Kashi, making food that enhances life is sacred business. For Kashi customers, living well is sacred business. More people are waking up to caring more about others and our planet, and buying Kashi products too. Your brand can differentiate as being the do-good brand in your space.
- Give them something to unwrap. Package design offers one of the biggest opportunities for brand differentiation. Color, shape, size, functionality, texture and materials can influence purchase decisions. There’s no mistaking a Tiffany & Co. box and its distinctive blue. Innovative packaging proves another signature differentiator for Apple as well as Tropicana which learned the value of this difference when it attempted to redesign its packaging.
- Engage the senses. Every marketer should explore the senses when ideating brand differentiation strategies. Each of the five senses offer a channel to connect with your target customer and flex a point of difference. The more each of these are engaged at any one time during customer contact the more your brand and what it stands for will be remembered. Scent branding in the hotel world is one example. Sofitel, Le Meridién, The Ritz-Carlton, Westin, Sheraton and Marriott are some of the hotel brands employing a signature scent strategy to further move away from their competitors.
- Put a famous face to your famous brand. The age-old strategy of pairing products and services with a well known celebrity continues to be a viable option for brand differentiation. However, the rules have changed. There must be an authentic alignment between the brand and the celebrity. Case in point: Tiger Woods and Nike Golf: Yes. Tiger Woods and Buick: No. The association between brand and celebrity must be clear and obvious.
- Redefine usage. How your product is used can serve as a key differentiator. Arm & Hammer Baking Soda became much more when customers discovered it also made for a powerful air freshener. This helped Arm & Hammer not only extend into new categories but also create a multi-use brand that is more meaningful to its target customers.
- Introduce simplicity and purity into people’s cluttered lives. Stand for good things. Market highly valued values. With deep customer insight you will know what your target customers value most. That insight can help create highly valued brands. Honest Tea was born from the insight that simple and pure refreshment was missing from the market. The Method brand came to life through a quest to create household cleaning products that were not harmful.
- Tap into the power of emotions. Linking your brand with customer emotions can prove an effective differentiator. It was humor that helped GEICO pull away in the me-too world of insurance brands. While their competition focused on fear, GEICO used witty and funny campaigns to differentiate itself and gain an advantage. Brands like Hallmark found brand differentiation based on human emotions could lead to a 92% mind share.
- Control the accessibility. Brands can differentiate on when they make their products and services available and who they make that accessibility for. Elite luxury brands will limit how many of its signature products are manufactured. The most influential customers will have access to those products first. This all builds into the frenzy that drives desire and purchase of the brand. It also helps command a premium price. Brands like Coca-Cola use accessibility on the other end of the spectrum. They desire to be the most accessible brand and have distribution channels into the deepest regions of the world.
- Focus on design and aesthetics. Consider Hermès scarves, Vilebrequin men’s swimwear, Robert Graham shirts and Alexander McQueen fashion wear. Or how about the Michael Graves Design’s collection at Target? This helps college and university brands too. Beautiful campuses tend to attract students. For municipality brands, “attractive neighborhoods” rates as one of the top things people consider when deciding where to live. Camden, ME, Niagara-on-the-Lake (ON, Canada), Quebec City (QC, Canada) and Bruges, Belgium are very popular as tourist destinations, in large part due to their superior aesthetics. Never underestimate the power of superior aesthetics to differentiate.
- Convey status. If you knew I went to Philips Academy, Andover, Harvard and Stanford, lived in Atherton, CA, summered in Nantucket, drove a Mercedes-Benz model S-class, and sailed a Nautor’s Swan53, would these brands effectively communicate my social status?
- Create a unique product purchase experience. How different is purchasing a teddy bear with a child in a Build-A-Bear Workshop versus buying one off the shelf in a typical toy or department store? Very different. And very differentiating.
- Create an unusual theme or twist to your brand. Consider the following unusual restaurant brands – Opaque (dining in the dark), Ice Restaurant (in Dubai), Underwater restaurant in Maldives, Magic Restroom (toilet-themed) Café in CA or Dinner in the Sky (suspended 50 meters above the ground). For more creative restaurant themes, see here.
- Treat people differently than your competitors do. We love Ritz-Carlton’s “Ladies and gentlemen serving ladies and gentlemen” mantra. This alludes to a level of gentility, civility and respect not often experienced in product purchase or usage experiences. If an opportunity to serve your customer better does not exist — create one.
To be different is to be not the same. To be unique is to be one of a kind.
Be different and be unique with a meaningful difference for those most important to your future.
Co-authored with The Blake Project’s Mark Di Somma, Brad VanAuken and Thomson Dawson
Sponsored By: The Brand Positioning Workshop and The Brand Storytelling Workshop
Compete. Win. Learn. The Un-Conference: 360° of Brand Strategy for a Changing World
May 6th and 7th, 2014 in South Beach, Florida
A unique, competitive-learning workshop limited to 50 participants (Selling Out Quickly)
As in the marketplace — some will win, some will lose, All will learn
~In Partnership with the American Marketing Association and the Miami Marlins~