Category Archives: Branding Strategies

Differentiation: Core of your Brand

I believe differentiation is critical for any successful  brand. It should be at the core of the company, product, service or event being branded.

Differentiation needs to be strategically implicit in the way you do business, and perceived as valuable and unique by target market members. And it must be clear – easily understand and easily communicated by gatekeepers to others. And most important, it needs to be believable.

Doug Hall (yes, the same Doug Hall who was coerced into being a “judge” on last summer’s American Inventor clone of American Idol), in his very wise and very readable book, Jump Start Your Business Brain, provides the three ingredients to a successful brand, although he didn’t mention “brand” per se. He just calls them the “three laws of Marketing Physics”. (His way of differentiating by creating a new paradigm). Those ingredients are:

•     An Overt Benefit (what’s in it for the consumer?)

•     A Real Reason to Believe (why should the consumer believe what you have to say?)

•     A Dramatic Difference (how novel is your delivery of the first two factors?)

Mr. Hall has isolated and documented these three factors through extensive research, and claims that if they are present at sufficient levels, there is an 84% overall probability of success.

Be that as it may, I’ve advised clients to utilize those three “laws” as a sound approach to differentiation. They do provide a solid foundation for a compelling brand.

I believe you will find that applying them to your branding process will be valuable.

In future blogs, I’ll be quoting others with world-wide reputations concerning differentiation. It’s pretty important.



Branding Basics: Step Five

OK, you’ve identified the market. You’ve scoped out your competition. You’ve found a niche – or a position – you feel you can occupy and defend. You’ve identified or invented your significant differentiator. You’ve established you internal vision and guidelines.

It’s time to construct your brand platform.

The brand platform defines the position the company wishes to occupy in the collective minds of stakeholders, and provides focus for the development and delivery of the messages to obtain that position.

This document allows brand management, together with executive managment in most organizations, to consider the many elements that can influence, and finally delineate, a brand’s uniqueness, credibility, robustness and longevity. These elements will help establish a brand that is different from competitors, perceived to be of value in the marketplace, and provide a structure for consistent, cost effective messaging to all stakeholders.

Here are five elements – planks – that need to be placed into the brand platform.

* Company vision/mission/core values/description of corporate personality. Also, provide a description of the business model, including distribution channels, pricing and marketing/sales structure.

* Stakeholders: State who these groups are, their relevance and importance in the brand picture. Be sure to include market segments as defined previously. This should include their preferences and prejudices concerning products in the category in which you will compete. Also, some idea about the emotional “triggers” that might help prospects embrace the brand and resonate to its messages can be included here.

* Positioning: Define the specific business or product category in which you will compete, and define that desired and unoccupied position in the collective mind of your most important stakeholders within that category. Also describe industry infrastructure, practices, legal/legislative climate, technological trends, and barriers to entry.

* Competition: Identify and then describe the positioning, strategies and SWOT of the major players.

* Differentiators: Describe both strategic and tactical differentiators you plan to exploit, i.e., business model and practices, product/service attributes, product/service delivery, product/service messaging, unique value propositions.

Once the information of the individual planks are written, a management review and brainstorming session is appropriate. Considerations of internal and external factors will be integrated and balanced. Here you’ll integrate the information into a brand strategy, a strong unoccupied position, and ground rules for messages, images and associations for the brand.

The platform will become the essential guide for all branding decisions. It should be widely distributed within the organization, and available to all suppliers, partners and investors. Although a strategic document, it should not be a confidential one.

Once approved, the brand platform will become an essential part of the “creative brief” that gives direction to the development of name, logo, taglines, graphic standards, messaging and presentation.

Martin Jelsema

Power 150: ranked 118

Brand Basics – Step 4

I promised in the last episode of this series we’d begin building our brand platform is entry. But I forgot one vital plank we must fashion prior to putting it all together.

That plank is differentiation.

It’s a description of how you are going to differentiate your offering from competitors. It’s the way you will fundamentally position your offering in an unoccupied portion of your product category. Or it may be the way you create an entirely new product category.

Marty Neumeier, author and consultant of the highest caliber, wrote an entire book around the concept of “ZAG”. When others zig, you zag. Incidentally, the title of the book is ZAG, and you can get it by clicking on the title.

Jack Trout, co-author of Positioning: a Battlefield for Your Mind, also wrote a book on differentiation. His is called Differentiate or Die. You can also buy this book by clicking the title.

Marketing a truly unique service, or a specialty product, or a new type of event can differentiate you.

Another class of differentiator can be deliberately achieved if accompanied by good timing and a modicum of luck. These include being preferred by authorities, being on the leading edge of a hot trend, establishing industry standards around your product’s proprietary strength, or being an industry (or neighborhood) leader.

Then there are the differentiators that a company can create deliberately through core competencies. It may be in the way a product is made (materials, process, patent), or the way in which a service is performed. It might have to do with the way you concentrate your attention on particular design aspects (like safety, ergonomics, or customization). Another differentiator might be the commitment you make to a particular market or market segment. It is possible to become a leader in certain segments through a concentration of resources. Or perhaps you can establish a unique distribution model.

Note that all these differentiators are derived from a strategic commitment to them. They are not marketing/advertising tactics. Unless they emanate from the business’s very core, they will be, rightly, viewed as so much hype.

Only one powerful and customer-relevant differentiator is enough.

Back to Basics – 3

Step 3 has to do with positioning.
Positioning was first presented by Al Reis and Jack Trout in their 1981 book, Positioning: The Battlefield for Your Mind (I own a first edition).
The main idea is that the marketplace actually positions (ranks and/or stereotypes) a brand within the collective mind.

Now most marketers believe they are responsible for positioning their offering – product or service – in the marketplace by practicing certain strategies and tactics, particularly through setting price and creating compelling messages.

Well, the truth is they do influence what market members think. But the key consideration here is the market perceives the product in their own context and through their own experiences, some not even related to the product itself. This includes experiences with competitive products and products in adjacent categories, their histories with similar products over time, and their social backgrounds among other factors.

A provider can certainly influence and persuade people that their product ought to occupy a certain position (number one, the first, the least expensive, the most responsive, etc.). However, if a competitor is already making – and backing up – that claim, you’ll most likely never dislodge the competitor from the position you’d like.
It’s therefore vitally important that you find a positive, unoccupied position in which to compete. That means research.
The first thing to determine through research is what attributes are really important to your prospects. That is, what motivates them to buy. Then you need to find out how your prospects now position your competition within the product category. Once you know those two pieces of intelligence you can begin looking for an unoccupied position with favorable attributes.

To read more about positioning and see how the research process works, I’ve a section about positioning on my Signature Strategies website. Just click Positioning to review that process.

Anyway, based on the research, whether a formal study or a “seat-of-the-pants” analysis, you begin to identify unoccupied positions with potential appeal and velocity.

Now you are ready to develop a product/service tailored to that position, and to begin the alignment of marketing factors to support the position.
As an example, let’s say you sold replacement windows, and you determined that the market and the category had a gap in the high-end remodeling market. Here, your customers are the contractors, not the ultimate consumer. You would then provide the essential help a contractor would need to design in your windows. You would want to establish a reputation for being there when the contractor wanted you on the job site. You’d also provide the contractor with marketing aids to help him/her convince the home-owner that both the contractor and the window were of good value and prestige.
In other words, you would plan to do what is necessary to make that position yours. But you must always remember it’s the market that does the positioning. All you can do is anticipate, participate and validate the market.
Now we’re ready to begin building our brand platform
More on that in Step 4.

When should you perform a brand audit?

There are several situations that require a brand manager to review and reevaluate the brand. Quite often this is an activity dictated by an unexpected event or circumstance which intuitively calls for the review. These often occur because of competitive activity, particularly when inytroducing a technologically superior product. The event may also be something as “trivial” as a critic’s product review.

Yet there are some more predictable situations where your brand management people should perform this review, also called a brand audit. Ideally, brand audits will be scheduled annually and receive as much attention as the brand plan. But if not, they should be reviewed when any of the following situations occur:

When contemplating a decision to enter a new market or product category in which you have not as yet established a position.

When assessing the pros and cons of extending a brand into a new product category or developing a new brand for that category.

When determining whether to sub-brand or utilize a corporate brand – and to assess the balance between the two.

When a brand’s market share is slipping or is not meeting realistic expectations because of competitive activity.

When considering the establishment of a new product category in which your brand will be the first participant.

When you are not certain of your brand’s position, strength or effectiveness in relation to competitive offerings.

When it’s time to establish a cohesive branding plan, and implement it through the creation of relevant branding elements: name, positioning statement, logo, packaging, graphic standards, associations, events, etc.

On my Signature Strategies website, I’ve outlined the elements of a complete brand audit. Just click on the name Signature Strategies to review and print out this doc.

Martin Jelsema

Power 150: ranked 118

Back to Basics – 2

The previous entry in this series addressed defining target markets as the first step of “Branding Smart from the Start”.
Step 2, competitive evaluation, is also a foundation activity upon which a successful brand can be built.
Here we are identifying and evaluating your anticipated competition.
Now, I’ve been told by at least a dozen entrepreneurs that “They don’t have any competitors”. I say poppycock! I say that’s a cop-out.
And I’m not speaking about the old saw that says you’re competing for a piece of market members’ limited resources. No, I suggest that your competition is probably the product, method or system market members are using today in order to cope with the need or desire your offering promises to address. So the horse and buggy competed with automobiles in the pioneering days of the auto. Bookkeepers compete with Quick Books. Faxes compete with e-mail. Fresh vegetables compete against packaged salads.
Yours may be a more speedy, cheaper, thorough and elegant solution to a problem. But because people in general are reluctant to change – they get comfortable with the way things are – the old ways need to be addressed and acknowledged as you develop your branding strategy.
No one has addressed this need better than Geoffrey A. Moore in his ground-breaking book, Crossing the Chasm. On page 154 of the soft-cover edition he presents a formula for a positioning statement, or elevator speech, to introduce a product that is going to replace a traditional product.

For (target customers)…
Who are dissatisfied with (current market alternative)…
Our produce/service is a (new product category)…
That provides (key benefit/solution)…
Unlike (product alternative)…
We have assembled (key features addressing the application).

For new products in which you are inventing a new product category (as I advised a new dry cleaner who offered all type of clothing care products to do by introducing the company as a “Clothing Care Center” rather than a “dry cleaner”.) and for products entering an established category, identify each major and each up-and-coming competitor and perform a SWOT (strength, weakness, opportunity, threat) analysis.
This will allow you to position each competitor against the attributes important within the product category. I suggest you go to my web site and review the positioning research example I’ve presented there concerning the restaurant business in a hypothetical small town in southern Colorado. Click Positioning Research Example.
You may not need to actually poll people about the competition if you have other sources of market intelligence. The idea is to at least roughly place competitors in the “pecking order” for each important attribute. Now you’ve established a map of your playing field, and can better see where your offering will fit within it.
Next time it’s on to Step 3 in the next blog when I’ll address the need for “classic” positioning.

Branding Basics: Step 1

As a branding consultant for smaller businesses, I’ve found it beneficial to assume my first-time clients lack knowledge of branding and of the branding process. This may sound presumptuous, but even those with some half-formed opinions (a little knowledge is…) find it helpful when we begin with a “back to basics” approach.

I call this educational process “Branding Smart from the Start”.
Okay, that admonition makes sense, but the question it raises is “how do I do that?

Well, I’m going to blog on that exact question: How should a start-up approach and implement a branding program right from the start? It will take a few weeks to cover the topic – there will be at least 10 blogs. But if you or your client can’t wait even a few weeks to implement a branding strategy, email me at and I’ll be happy to send you my drafts of the series.
Now many of the factors that dictate your initial business model and business plan are integral to your brand plan. In fact you can do to begin the branding smart process even before you have a business plan. I believe that branding is part of the fundamental strategic groundwork that dictates your business plan.
So the first question I usually ask is, “What markets will you serve and what are their major problems, needs, desires and characteristics?” 
I won’t let someone get away with defining their market as, “anyone who (fill in the blank)”. That’s not specific enough. If it’s a consumer product or service, speak to gender, age, income level, problem or desire addressed, their motivation, etc., etc. There may be more than one set of consumers, so define and profile each group and their importance (group size, purchase frequency, probable lifetime value).
If you’re serving business-to-business customers and clients, describe the industry(s), organization size, buying cycles, organization structures, buying motives, buying influences by company size, etc., etc.
In other words, profile the buyers in the market or markets you will be serving.
Once you’ve defined your market(s) and their needs for your product or service, you have established the foundation of the market structure on which you will build your brand. It’s also information that should influence your strategic plan as well as being a major section of the plan itself.
Just an aside: So often an entrepreneur will name his startup even before thoughts of brand, market, competition or business model are addressed. Isn’t that putting the cart before the oxen? That’s branding “from the start”, but not “branding SMART from the start. See my previous blog on Branding Sequencing.
I believe that the name – the foremost branding element – should be derived from the strategies developed and documented in the business plan.
Next: Competition and differentiation.

Martin Jelsema

Branding for Venture Capital

Let’s say you’ve invented a new product that will require tons of capital to bring to market. It’s probably more capital than your local bank is willing to advance you, more than the SBA will loan you, more than all your friends and relatives could dredge up even if they were willing to back you.

You’ll need to seek out and convince professional venture investors that your venture has a good chance of succeeding..

So you write a plan and get all the legal compliance docs you need to raise money. You’ve even developed a presentation and printed business cards.

But an important part of the package is missing unless you’ve already created you brand.

Even at this early stage, you have more than a product idea. You have a vision, a dream, a mission, a passion. And those core business drivers can best be communicated to investors through the branding process.

Even though the business may be an intangible at this point, it just makes sense to build a brand that reflects and reinforces your passion, and helps convey that passion to potential investors.

First you’ll need to establish a brand platform. This document is usually a synthesis of your mission statement and strategic business model, crystallized into a six-point, one page document addressing: business model, product category, competition, markets to be served, uniqueness of your product, and how you’ll position your product. It should be a prominent page of the strategic description of your business plan

Then, you’ll want to demonstrate how you’ll differentiate your product and activate the platform by creating a name, logo, tagline and color palette at a minimum. These elements should be part of the graphic design of the solicitation materials and the presentation. They may also be featured in the business plan itself.

Building a brand that emanates from your vision in a professional, convincing manner will help demonstrate much better than mere words why an investor should feel your venture could be a sound investment. It will help build confidence in the venture, demonstrating that you are business-savvy and have a market-orientation many entrepreneurs lack.

This is the ultimate example of adhering to my admonition to all entrepreneurs, “Brand smart from the start”.

Oh, and a powerful brand can’t hurt when you go to your local bank, either.

Martin Jelsema