Brand Differentiation: Ten Traps to Avoid

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In my last post, I proposed five principles of brand differentiation:

  1. The goal is not “difference.”  The goal is value and meaning.
  2. Differentiation is not something you find.  It’s something you create.
  3. In branding, as in life, what we do matters more than what we say.
  4. “Best” is relative.
  5. Be precise with your Who.  Be creative with your How.

These are the starting points.  But if you’ve ever attempted to cut your own hair during a pandemic – speaking hypothetically, of course! – you know there can be a huge gap between “best intentions” and “end result.”  Things go wrong along the way.

The same goes for brand differentiation.  There’s the moment of inspiration, and then there’s all the hard work that comes after it.

If it sometimes feels like powerful forces are often stacked against bold new ideas, that’s because they are.  This is especially true in organizations with a track record of success.  Change is scary and often painful.  The status quo is known, and for many people, it’s comfortable enough.

That’s what this post is about: The ten traps, both personal and organizational, that stand in the way of creating meaningful, value and brand differentiation.

Trap 1: “For Everyone”

Sometimes, forces within the organization will entice you to go broad with your targeting.  “A bigger market must be a better market,” is the implied reasoning.

Not necessarily.

Dig deep for stronger brand differentiation

If you want to stand out, it’s better to go narrow, not wide.  Make something that someone will love, not something that everyone will just be okay with.

When you go narrow, you can go deep.  And a deep, rich, nuanced view of the humans you serve is a significant competitive advantage.

The alternative is to spread the same resources wide but shallow.  And if your knowledge of your humans is surface-level or entirely assumed, you’re placing yourself at a major deficit.

There’s an old saying in marketing: “Delight the few to attract the many.”  Do something remarkable, and people will tell your story for you.

Don’t be “for everyone.”  Be “for someone.”

Trap 2: Obsessing Over the Competition.

By all means: Stay aware of what the competition is doing.  Nothing bad will happen if you understand what they’re doing & what they’re likely to do next.

But if you’re thinking about them more than they’re thinking about you, you’re doing something wrong.

Here’s a projective exercise: What would you do if you were completely ignorant of the competition?  If you didn’t know the “rules” of your industry?  This is a step toward the “beginner’s mind” that often characterizes successful startups.

Be aware of the competition.  But don’t be obsessed.  Save your obsessions for the people you serve.

Don’t obsess over the competition.  Obsess over those you serve.

Trap 3: Increments Only.

“Here’s something that already exists, but about 5% different.”

Does that sound like a compelling offer to you?  Because that’s effectively what we do when we focus only on incremental change.

Incrementalism looks and feels very much like stagnation.  And stagnation invites disruption.

Certainly, incrementalism can play a role in a portfolio that includes some riskier plays.  But if you want to create something that makes people sit up and take notice, you’ve got to go to the edges.

As Seth Godin has said, “You can’t build a fast-growing company around vanilla.”

Don’t do “increments only.”  Push the edges.

In brand differentiation, the greatest rewards are at the edges of the market

Trap 4: Playing It Safe.

Playing it safe is often linked to incrementalism.  We believe there’s less risk in doing something familiar.

But the data begs to differ.  Familiar ideas are – shocker! – seen by consumers as “not very new and different.”  And minimal news means minimal chances of a big win.

Doug Hall of Eureka! Ranch offers a maxim in this area: “A true innovation should make at least one department of your company very nervous.”

This is a good rule of thumb.  If an idea isn’t growing your organization – stretching its capabilities, forcing new learnings – then it’s unlikely to grow outside your walls either.

Don’t play it safe all the time.  Make yourself nervous, often.

Trap 5: Idea-Shrinking.

If you’ve ever endured the soul-crushing malaise of a bad brainstorming session, you’ve heard phrases like this:

“That’s not what we know how to do.”

“Our consumer would never go for that.”

“We’re gonna have to check with legal!”

It would be bad enough if such sentiments were confined to whiteboard sessions.  But historically, organizations are pretty adept at neutralizing newness.  Before you know it, your once-inspiring idea has been whittled down to a nub of sameness.

Certainly, if you’re making yourself nervous, you’re going to face some internal challenges.  But don’t lose sight of the task: To bring the right idea to market.

Remember: A severely watered-down idea is unlikely to get the job done – for you or for the people you serve.

Don’t shrink ideas.  Keep them alive.

Trap 6: Doing What’s Easy.

In my past life, I was a marketer on candy brands like Airheads and Trolli.  As a consultant, I often have clients in confectionery.  So I’ve been attending candy trade shows for nearly 30 years.

Every few years, some company or another will launch a product that can be described as follows:

“It’s a lot like Nerds, but a little different.”

Why?  Because a product like that is easy to make.

You’ll rarely see these products on store shelves, because historically, they don’t sell well.  They may be easy to make, but that’s not what matters to consumers. 

And if it doesn’t matter to consumers, it’s a zero.  You can maximize efficiency all you like, but if the consumer doesn’t care, you’re optimizing on tiny numbers.

Starting with their wants & needs is always better than starting with your capabilities.

Don’t do what’s easy.  Do what matters.

Trap 7: Aiming For Satisfaction.

“Customer satisfaction” is a bit of an insidious term.

“How do you feel about our relationship, my love?”

“Oh, I’m… satisfied.”

Let’s aim higher.  Let’s aim for enthusiasm.

How do we earn enthusiasm?  Here’s a reliable way: Overdeliver.  Overdeliver on some meaningful aspect of the experience.

This means your brand will be somewhat “lopsided.”  You’ll go heavy in one area at the expense of others.

It feels counter-intuitive, but this is exactly what you want.  You stand out when you have the courage to do something that’s truly different.  And something truly different is more likely to get people excited.

Don’t aim for satisfaction.  Aim for enthusiasm.

Trap 8: Bullsh*tting.

There’s an old-school view of marketing that says you can exaggerate or lie to people and get away with it forever.

This view is stuck in the pre-internet era, maybe 1993 or so.  (Please don’t bring the baggy jeans back in the time machine with you!)

But it still persists today: “I just read an article that says consumers are seeking out brands with a purpose.  So let’s pretend we have one!”

This stance reflects a dim view of one’s own consumers.  Better to start with respect.

When you respect the people you serve, you’ll work harder to create something truly better for them.

And when you do that, your marketing is baked right into your experience.  This is a powerful place to be.  You can tell a true story, and your fans can tell a true story on your behalf.

But when you fake it, the truth will come out.  It’s just a question of when.

Don’t bullsh*t.  Stand on truths.

Trap 9: Fast-Following.

“Fast-following” is sometimes a legit strategy.  But it’s not what true brand differentiation is about.

And fast-following requires that you leverage some other unique strength or asset in order to be successful.  Without that, it’s just a parity play.

What’s better than playing “follow the leader”?  How about actually being the leader?

Note that you don’t have to be the biggest to be the leader.  Market share and market leadership are two very different things.

You can’t copy your way to the top. And you can’t break new ground, by definition, if you don’t go first.

Don’t follow fast.  Lead the charge.

Trap 10: Attaching Yourself to an Idea.

Starting with an idea, and then trying to convince ourselves that the world needs it, is one path to the poorhouse.

If you have an idea you believe in, by all means, build it and put it out there.  But be ready for the feedback that it’s not exactly what people wanted.  And be ready to modify accordingly.

When your focus is not on the idea, but on serving, you welcome feedback in its proper spirit: “Today’s best effort can be even better tomorrow.”

Ultimately, it’s not about the idea anyways.  It’s about what the idea does for someone.

Keep asking “How do we make the world a better place?” and you’ll never go too far wrong. 

Don’t attach yourself to an idea.  Attach yourself to serving.

Creating meaningful brand differentiation isn’t easy.  But by anticipating these ten common traps, we can act to avoid them – and greatly increase our chances of doing work that matters.

List of ten traps to avoid in brand differentiation

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About Matthew Fenton: Matthew is a former CMO who helps brands to focus, stand out and grow.  Since founding his consultancy, Three Deuce Branding, in 1997, he’s helped hundreds of brands to achieve “brand clarity.”  His consulting services and speaking engagements help brands to focus on what matters through positioning, strategy and ideation.  Contact Matthew here.  He’s based in Chicago.

Copyright 2020 – Matthew Fenton. All Rights Reserved. You may reprint this article with the original, unedited text intact, including the About Matthew Fenton section.

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