If you've read any books or articles by branding gurus, they've likely suggested that businesses need to identify what it is that differentiates their brand—what makes it unique and valuable to current and prospective customers. That is an important first step in the branding process.

The problem, however, is that the majority of businesses struggle with the task; they aren't able to easily identify what makes their brands valuable. They end up with generic, vague statements about "superior customer service" and "high-quality products."

Those businesses, branding experts suggest, have a branding problem. And the solution they typically recommend is to go back to the drawing board and take another stab at identifying the brand's differentiating quality.

That's where the conventional wisdom is wrong. If you struggle to find answers to "the question," and if, in fact, several unique brand attributes aren't all bubbling to the surface vying to be the No. 1 attribute, then you don't have a branding problem, you have a business problem.

It's your business—not the brand—that isn't offering anything of unique value, which leads me to the most important "law" of what I term "organic branding."

1. A great brand must start with a great company that offers great products and services

Yes, I said it. A company's products and services and the way the company delivers those services are more important than the brand and how  that brand is marketed.

Urging companies that aren't "great" to develop a compelling brand reminds me of the old saying about putting lipstick on a pig. Such companies are commodities, and trying to brand a commodity is an uphill battle. Those businesses first have to fix what it is that they're offering the consumer.

The branding process, in other words, must start from the inside out.

To suggest, as I have, that the product is more important than the brand is blasphemy in branding circles. Branding experts insist that customers must have an emotional connection to a brand if that brand is to be successful—e.g., that emotional connection is what drives them to pay $4 for a Starbucks coffee.

That logic is mistaken. People pay $4 for a Starbucks coffee not because they've made an emotional connection to the brand but because they've made an emotional connection to the product. Starbucks customers love Starbucks coffee. They may love the brand now, but they fell in love with the product first.

Branding experts are confusing the brand and the product, which brings up the second law of  organic branding.

2. Customers must have a connection to a company, its products, or its services before they can make a connection to the brand

Before there was a great brand there was a great company that provided great products or services. The branding came later.

Look at just some of the great brands: Apple, Google, Disney, Honda, Wal-Mart, Starbucks. There's a reason why people love those brands, and it has little to do with branding.

Google is the most popular search engine despite almost no efforts by the company to build its brand. The extent of Google's overt branding efforts is the logo on its home page. Google didn't worry about branding; it worried about creating a product that was superior to its competitors' and provided a greater benefit to its customers.

Google put its energy into refining its algorithms to produce the most-relevant search results. Google users fell in love with Google because it helped them find the information they were looking for better than other search engines did. In short, Google users fell in love with Google's product before they fell for the brand.

In the same way, people fell in love with Starbucks' tasty lattes, Honda's dependable cars, Apple's simplicity (its design and ease of use), and Wal-Mart's low prices.

There are exceptions to the rules, of course. Some companies that sell commodities and put huge sums of money into building brands around those commodities are successful. If you've got the marketing budget of a Nike, you can take that approach; otherwise, I wouldn't recommend it.

Further support for the "product first, brand second" argument is that brand loyalty can be so fleeting. The automobile industry is an example: Its brand loyalty is at an all-time low. that's because more companies than ever before are making high-quality cars, and buyers are flocking to quality, not brands.

Hyundai's recent success demonstrates the tendency for customers to flock to quality over brands. In less than a decade, Hyundai went from having no status to Top 10 status. And it had nothing to do with branding. It's because Hyundai used to make lousy cars that fell apart, and now it makes cars that win awards for quality at prices lower than its competitors'.

Branding—and Differentiation—Do Matter

I'm not saying that branding isn't a critical part of the marketing process—it is. A strong brand, one that is easily recognizable and communicates the differentiating value of a company, product, or service is invaluable. It puts a face on the company and enhances the consumer's ability to recognize and connect to that company.

That identity lays the foundation for all of a company's marketing efforts. The argument isn't to not brand; rather, it's to realize the limitations of a brand on its own and the importance of the true value the company offers.

So if your business has trouble answering "What differentiates your brand?" look first at what differentiates your business, products, and services. Look at all the ways that you could possibly provide your customers with greater value compared with your competitors.

Here are just a few ways to differentiate your business:

  • Provide faster production and delivery service, higher-quality materials,  and 24/7 customer service
  • Make house calls
  • Offer lifetime warranties, money-back guarantees, and better manuals and operating instructions
  • Provide features that your competitors don't
  • Offer lower prices
  • Deliver your product to customers' front doors
  • Package your product in a unique way
  • Follow up with your customers via phone or email
  • Provide empirical evidence demonstrating your superiority
  • Offer a free service in addition to your core service

Those are just a few ideas. Develop your own list, and identify the areas that provide the greatest value to your customers while being the most feasible for your company to deliver on.

You can't ignore differentiation. Until your business, products, and services clearly demonstrate unique value to your customers, your branding efforts will have to wait. Otherwise, you'll simply be putting lipstick on a pig.

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The Two Laws of Branding From the Inside Out

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Arie Opps is president of Illuminate Marketing (www.illuminatemarketing.ca), a Toronto-based marketing firm specializing in marketing research, branding, and marketing strategy. Reach him via arie@illuminatemarketing.ca or 416-512-0986.