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




Micro-brands: is small beautiful or just confusing?

too many brand pebbles on the beach?It’s very encouraging to any brand specialist to see the way that businesses of all sizes have embraced the concept of branding. The internet, amongst other recent phenomena, has reduced the cost and barriers to entry for start-ups and micro businesses, which in turn has led to an explosion of micro-brands. Is this growth helpful to the brand arena in general, or to the micro-brands themselves?

Certainly, it now requires more care for any brand, existing or new to check that somewhere there is not a micro-brand that may cause confusion with your own brand, or worse, lead to unwitting infringement of IPR.

So far as small brand owners are concerned, the received wisdom was always to keep it simple. It made a good deal of sense to follow either the ‘monolithic’ or ‘endorsed’ brand models so that all your offer could draw strength from the main brand and your investment was maximised. Few would have advised a small business to adopt a distributed or ‘Unilever’ style brand strategy. However, thanks to the low cost of entry, and the opportunity to build brands with far lower cash investment (but maybe a good deal of time resource), there may sometimes be the case for an SME to consider a multiple brand strategy.

Consider the small business that has a product that can be sold into a high value sector at a premium price, but can also produce a simpler low cost version at a significantly lower price. A number of strategic options may be available:

  1. Use the flagship product to pull through sales of the cheaper product through aspiration and value transference, perhaps raising the price of the lower product.
  2. Adjust the prices of the two products to bring them closer and perhaps concentrate upon one end of the market (or maybe the middle).
  3. Concentrate energies upon the sector the with the greatest revenue potential.

To make these decisions would require a significant amount of research which could be costly and time-consuming. But traditionally, these would have been the type of options on the menu for smaller brands. Today, it is relatively simple to create two ‘dual’ brands aimed at the different sectors and ‘see what happens’. Research is done ‘on the hoof’. I know one major confectionery manufacturer who used to adopt this strategy, calculating that the cost of bringing a new chocolate bar brand into production and testing it by distribution in a limited area was far cheaper than thoroughly researching pre-launch. This sort of approach was way beyond the resources of small businesses. But, today, to test a brand concept on-line could not be simpler or cheaper.

Micro-brands may be muddying the water and making clarity of offer and proposition even more important, but for all those of us who find branding exciting and stimulating there is a lot to be learned. There may be a lot more background noise out there – but watch out for those tiny voices being heard above the din.