brand differentiation

Standing out in a crowded brandscape

Entrepreneurs and startups need to push their brands hard.

It’s encouraging that more and more new businesses and startups are entering the commercial arena. Growth of new companies means growth of new brands, making it more difficult to be seen, heard and noticed.

Startups are notorious lax in paying attention to their brands. This is understandable – they have a mountain of details and issues that demand their attention. While items such as sales, product development, finance and customer service are pressing, the brand is left to take care of itself.

There is an argument, and one which I have often made, that if you get all the other things right, you will get the brand right. The brand is the business. However in an increasingly crowded brandscape, effort is needed ensure a fair share of voice.

This does not necessarily mean throwing money or effort at promotion. It means being aware of the need for differentiation, and taking appropriate action.

Put your brand under the magnifying glass

The good news is, you probably have the differentiators already. The trick is to ask the right questions.

  1. What is it about your product or service that makes it special? You don’t need to go looking for the big deals – it’s often the little things that make a difference. What things make you that little bit different from everyone else.
  2. What is it that makes your business special? Think about the way you do things – what’s special in your approach. What about your story? Why are you doing what you do, what was your journey – every business has its own special narrative – what’s yours?
  3. What about your people – what makes them special, different, quirky – what’s the background?
  4. What about the real benefit you offer? How does that differ from your competitors?

Within those four questions probably lie some real differentiators you can use to stand out from the crowd. Sometimes you can be too close to the business to see them – so ask somebody else, friends, advisers, customers.

Feelings matter

Don’t be afraid that the key differences may look like ‘soft’ items rather than hard facts. The most important influences on brand choice are often emotional rather that pragmatic. It’s what people feel about your brand rather than what they know.

Once you’ve spotted the differentiators, write them down. Start to plan how you can emphasise and underline them.

Traditionally, the advice was to apply the ‘marketing mix’ to find points of differentiation (remember the four ‘P’s – Product, Price, Place and Promotion?). Great guidance, if you have clear points of difference. The problem is that many startups or small businesses are operating on marginal distinctions.

Be bold – dare to be different

This is where you need to be bold in your approach. Don’t be afraid to stand out. Be prepared to do what is necessary – but do it differently.


Here are a few key thoughts that may stimulate ways you may differentiate your brand offer:

  • Think five senses – visual, tactile, sound, smell, taste
  • Privacy and security – key themes for today
  • Change your category
  • Technology – keep an eye on new ways to do what you do
  • Look for niches – they can be different, quirky and profitable
  • Create a new product or service – it’s only a name
  • Customer service – don’t just be excellent, be different
  • Be personal
  • Environmentally relevant and sustainable
  • Don’t be afraid to be exclusive
  • Use colour
  • Use showmanship if you’re in a ‘me-too’ category
  • User experience – make it different – fun, exciting, challenging?
  • Specialise – you don’t have to sell to everyone
  • Vision – use your dream or philosophy – purpose and passions
  • Heritage – where you come from – geographically or historically
  • Your people – they’re special
  • Break your industry or sector rules




Differentiation and problem brands

Brand specialists talk glibly about the importance for brand differentiation, but in the real world, businesses may have to struggle with ‘me-too’ brands. In practice they will find they have just two levers to pull. They can look to differentiate the brand, or they can look to differentiate the brand communications.

The matrix below looks at these two positions and considers what it means in terms of a brand strategy:

Box 1 – Here we have a brand that has little to differentiate itself from its competitors. We know that brand differentiation is the ideal, but any such actions may be too costly or have an unrealistic time-scale. However, we may have the possibility to set the brand apart from the competition in terms of the brand communications – how we present it to the world in general. This could be a change of image, advertising or promotion.

Box 2 – This is the happy situation. We have the possibility to either differentiate the brand intrinsically or by using the brand communications – or perhaps a combination of the two.

Box 3 – This is the problematic position. Your brand is a commodity and difficult to differentiate. In addition, it is problematic to use marketing communication to gain competitive distance. This can sometimes be the position of B2B suppliers of commodity products or services. This may be a case where the brand needs to review its cost position and see if there is possibility to differentiate the brand on a price or value platform.

Box 4 – The flip side of Box ‘1’. However this is the stronger position. It is always more satisfactory to work on the brand itself rather than the communications. Too often brand owners rush to communications solutions. Differentiating the brand through quality, service or added value is deeper and more enduring.

Threshers for the drop?

Noting the imminent demise of the Threshers wine stores and considering two dimensions: firstly pressures on the sector, and secondly differentiation within the sector. This could be a classic case-study question for marketing students!

Since supermarkets first carved a niche for themselves in the drinks sector ( I seem to remember Sainsburys were the pioneers), the high street wine stores have been under pressure. Apart from a small window of opportunity on Sunday evenings when even 24hr Supermarkets lock their doors, competing is an uphill struggle. Competition also comes from the convenience stores with the off-licence counter who have a more diversified offer and not so dependent upon the booze trade. Government and social pressure can also hae done little to help this besieged sector.

Within the sector little has been done to make an offer differentiated from the supermarkets. Take me blindfolded and remove the mask before a Threshers’ rack and I would be hard pressed to tell if I was in a supermarket or not.

There are small specialist wine merchants carving niches at the top end and carefully loading cases of premier crus into their customers’ 4x4s, but there are few differentiated brand offers in this difficult arena.

Oddbins and Majestic have always had rather quirky personalities that have created a measure of differentiation, but this has been a matter of personality, presentation and communications rather than a distinct business model. The sector needs some dynamic thinking if it is not to disappear altogether into the omnivorous maws of the supermarkets.

Domain name shake up – good or bad for brands?

The latest action that the press tells us will lead to confusion, despair, plague and pestilence is the proposed liberalisation of domain names – See the clip from the BBC story. The theory seems to be that we will be able to have any domain we want, so long as we have the money. The first pass at this seems to be that it will be bad for brands as it will lead to customer confusion.  Asusual, this assumes that brand owners and promoters are fools: of course the opposite is true.  The Holy Grails for any brand owner are clarity and differentiation and of course they will do all in their power to achieve these objectives. To assume they will throw up their hands in resignation and allow customers to be confused is ridiculous. Even now, I am sure that shrewd brand marketers are pouring over the opportunities presented to use this new freedom to enhance clarity, memorability, recall and differentiation.