Make Them Disappear: Strong Brands Obscure the Competition

Choose three or four words that represent categories of products and services. Words like “beer,” “doctor,” “bar-be-que,” and “talk show.” When you say the word “beer,” does a particular brand jump out in your mind? When you say the word “doctor,” do you immediately think of your primary care physician? Do you always think about a particular restaurant when someone says “Let’s go out for bar-be-que.” Who do you see in your mind when you hear the phrase “talk show?” These simple associations are precisely what brands strive to achieve.

The reason that large brewers spend so much money advertising is not to sell more beer — it’s to keep the competition out of your mind. Some brands have been so successful at this that the very name of the product or company has become synonymous with what they sell. People don’t say “hand me a facial tissue,” they say “give me a Kleenex.” We may “Xerox” something even when we use a different brand of copier. We “Google” a word or phrase instead of “search online” for what we want to know. The massive presence of these brands has significantly diminished the presence of their competitors in the public mind.

But it’s not just large organizations that achieve mental saturation, even though we’re most familiar with this dynamic in the context of national brands. You may have a family attorney that always springs to mind when you think of the word “attorney” and, even though he is not nationally known, he still moves all of the competition to the back of your mind, making it unlikely that you will ever hire anyone else to represent you in court. The same may be true for “grocery store,” “hair salon” or “coffee shop.” Each of these organizations has built a strong brand in your mind; they have made a large deposit in the mental brand bank, and receive interest by having you return to their business again and again.

The best way for small businesses to achieve this effect is by creating profound experiences. If you go to a typical grocery store and buy a loaf of bread, your experience is hardly memorable. But if you go to a locally-owned store and watch a baker remove a beautiful, crusty loaf of bread from a large stone oven, slice into it, slather a large piece with softened butter and hand the warm sample of their new sourdough to you, the experience is far more memorable. The nature of profound experience is what encouraged Whole Foods to build large, in-store kiosks where chefs can prepare food right in front of shoppers, engaging the mind with sights, smells and tastes that compel shoppers to buy products that they might not have otherwise, and to spend more than they thought they would.

Tara’s Tasty Treats

Candy can be bought almost anywhere, so Tara decided to find unique ways to present signature products that make grocery store candy feel uninspired and unmemorable. Inspired by the bright colors and fantastic shapes of her candy, she began by clearing out a central area in her store, setting it up as a large display space. On a raised platform, she installed a rotating series of demonstrations, games and contests that provided plenty opportunities for customer interaction.

Taffy pulling became a regular contest between her strongest customers, competing for “Tara’s Taffy Trophy” — a two-foot-tall sculpture made entirely from different flavors of the candy. In another contest, cotton candy was used to decorate the faces of volunteers, forming giant pink eyebrows and bright blue beards on those who didn’t mind getting a little sticky in the process. During the holidays a cutthroat gingerbread house decorating contest allowed Tara to promote all of the newest candy offerings while keeping customers returning to see how each of the magnificent candy mansions was progressing. Customers were able to keep tabs on new events through regular posts on the website and social media. The more outrageous the event, the more memorable it became.

Originally published at on January 14, 2016.