Brand Differentiation: Just Claiming ‘Leadership’ Won’t Do

Recently I received an invitation to a Webinar whose purpose was to “optimize pay-per-click ads.” It turned out the “optimization” being offered, based on the presenter's research, had to do with a failure to clearly state the value proposition. Who would have thought?

That a Webinar was offered to attract marketers and address this problem isn’t at all surprising. So much promotional communication utterly misses the absolute requirement to separate a brand from its competition. I’m betting there is a bunch of on- or off-line marketing plans out there that don't ever get to competitive analysis, much less effective differentiation. There are several reasons for this. Chief among them is fear of focusing in promotional communications. The good news is what you promote, what you sell, and what earns income can be separated. What's essential is sacrificing the urge to be all things to all customers in how you present your brand.

Start by substituting “competitive differentiation” for the currently vogue expression, “value proposition.” To me, “value proposition” doesn't capture what's needed to capture brand or product differentiation against competitors. It's too neutral, too safely vague.

To see how broad a problem the lack of differentiation is, go to any of a dozen Websites for any kind of business and see how many sharply defined brands you find. How many immediately let you know what's significantly different about their products or services? I'm betting you run into the same old descriptive approach: “XYZ is a leader in (you name the market sector).”

That's it! It's a leader even though it may be one of a dozen companies doing the same thing and claiming that lofty market position — while competing against a really well known brand that is the 500 pound gorilla of their market sector. Visit sites for several companies in the same category, and it's very likely you’ll find them all claiming leadership with the same buzzwords as their competitors. Worse yet, you may find a company claiming a variety of values all on the same Website.

I love it when an Internet infrastructure hardware or software services brand claims it is “a leader” and it's in the same business as {complink 2470|IBM Corp.} or {complink 1131|Cisco Systems Inc.}. Come on, boys and girls. You need to do a lot better than that. Last time I checked, a leader is the one out front , not an also-ran.

The good news is there are lots of ways of separating a brand from its competitors. Claiming “leadership” is only one of them, and the outfit that does so better be well established as the leader — not just one of the players in the sector — when it claims that market position. Wishing it or just saying it on your Website doesn’t make it so. Get real or suffer loss of credibility.

Jack Trout's book, Differentiate or Die, provides superb insight into both the failure of brands to separate themselves from competitors and many ways of effectively differentiating. Incorporating his advice is a good first step and will beat any Webinar in creating a value proposition or building competitive differentiation into your communications program.

However, remember, a differentiated position must reflect what you can actually deliver and demonstrate in the market. You need the credentials. If you have them, then clearly communicate the single, key value you're offering customers that others are not and, ideally, cannot. And as Trout reinforces, “You can't over-communicate your difference.”

In the tech sector, marketers can use many of the same approaches that have been long applied by consumer brands, but instead they just fall back on claiming they're “a leader.” This is so lame, especially when there are lots of other options. While true category leadership is a way of differentiating, other descriptions appropriate to a wider number of brands include:

  • Being the first or the latest
  • Claiming a specialty
  • Being the latest or the coolest
  • How or where a product is made
  • Owning an attribute or a unique ingredient
  • Creating a new category you can be first in

There are many ways of differentiating technology brands or products. {complink 2657|Intel Corp.} is the leader in microprocessors while {complink 103|Advanced Micro Devices Inc. (AMD)}, the fast follower, is occasionally first with the newest or latest features. Intel applied an ingredient strategy with its long-running “inside” campaign. This benefited Intel but not the personal computer makers that nearly all used Intel’s processors. How different was that? As with many market leaders that want to retain that position, Intel competes primarily with itself by superceding its own products and preempting others.

Once, when {complink 4959|SGI} was introducing a new high-performance class of workstation, it created a fresh category for its blazingly fast system by naming it the Mini-Super Computer. It fit between competitors selling minis and {complink 1397|Cray Inc.}, which owned the super computer category. This strategy worked well, captured market attention, and sales zoomed.

Often the combined attributes can be merged into a new but understandable value applied to the brand, which sets it apart from competitors. This approach obeys the rule that customers can only remember a single associated brand value, not 10. If your brand, in fact, has multiple, differentiating values to customers, either pick one of them that's most competitively preemptive or integrate several valued attributes into a single one that you can claim as your own.

Note that service is usually not a sustainable differentiating value. Your competitors can, and likely will, match the level of service that your customers temporarily perceive as superior. Without recounting all the rules in Al Reis and Jack Trout's highly recommended classic, The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing, begin looking for ways to differentiate your brand or products.

There is often a need to differentiate the same brand in separate ways because you face varying competitors in different geographies. Don’t be afraid of that either.

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