Brand Positioning and Communication
When the Competition Is High, ‘Extraordinary’ Beats ‘Only’
Strategies that help distinguish brands surrounded by similar offers.
Often, startups and small to medium-sized businesses are led astray by experts and gurus who stress the importance of finding an answer to some form of the following question:
What do you do that no one else does?
For most people, even the thought of such a question triggers panic: alarms blare, and their confidence plummets as they exhaust every possible answer they can think of. With no luck, they believe that something is abnormally wrong with their approach because, despite all the frameworks, e-courses, and online content that prescribes them to do so, they can’t seem to answer it.
The truth is, there’s absolutely nothing “abnormal” about it. Being unable to answer a question like this is not uncommon or unnatural; on the contrary, this is precisely what happens when you have an offer that’s both viable and desirable.
Why the pursuit of ‘only’ is unrealistic for most brands
Striving to be unique is one thing, but asking what the only thing a brand provides to a group of people that no one else does, would imply that it has no competition. More specifically, it has no other offers that compete directly or indirectly with its own.
Although this concept of “only” sounds inspiring and insightful, the whole reason a business seeks to differentiate itself — through branding, marketing, a business model, etc. — stems from the inherent need to stand out against similar offers in its market. Simply put, differentiation exists because a given offer is not the only one of its kind.
In reality, very few brands live in a world of “only”; it’s usually those that have developed a completely new technology, product, or service, or have created an entirely new way to deliver one that’s already been established. Think about something like the World Wide Web — now that’s an only. The internet without the World Wide Web would consist of emails and instant messages, and webpages just wouldn’t exist. There are no other “World Wide Webs” that it needs to distinguish itself from because there’s nothing else like it — not yet at least.
For the rest of us, we live the world of every: where markets are so saturated that offers will undoubtedly have numerous others that are similar to — if not just like them.
To put this in perspective, the 2019 Small Business Profile by the US Small Business Association reported that there are over 30.7M small businesses in the United States alone — not counting larger corporations or those outside of US borders. This means that the chances of any offer being the only one of its kind are going to be pretty slim.
These are the reasons why it’s near-impossible for most businesses to answer such a daunting question against the staggering volume of growing offers out there. And why asking causes so much unneeded anxiety and stress: because if an answer did exist, then there wouldn’t be a need to spend time finding creative ways to differentiate their offer in the first place.
The difference between competing and coexisting
The late Bruce Henderson, the founder of The Boston Consulting Group, literally wrote the book on business strategy (it’s out of print, but here’s a great article if you’re interested). In it, he makes a critical reference to the Soviet Biologist G.F. Gause’s Principle of Competitive Exclusion:
No two species can coexist that make their living in an identical way.
This theory is valid for all types of competition — be it business, warfare, or biological evolution. In the context of business, it translates into the following approaches:
- To position a brand, product, service, or initiative against others in the same market, with the same offering and consumer, deemed by Henderson as direct competition.
- To position a brand, product, service, or initiative away from indirect competitors, deemed by Henderson as variety.
In either case, the end goal for both efforts is for an organization (or individual) to distinguish their brand or offer by either positioning itself, repositioning the competition, or some combination of the two.
The critical factor that separates these two approaches is the resources they need to be successful. Assuming the resources aren’t infinite, if two brands within the same market depend on the same customer or partner in the same way for their survival, then they’re directly competing for that resource. If one or more of these things is different, then both brands can presumably coexist through variety, which (in business) is most commonly achieved in one (or more) of the following ways:
- Varying the context of your product or service, such as the difference between being a wedding photographer and a product photographer.
- Varying the location of your market, such as two wedding photographers — one serving clients in Los Angeles and one serving clients in Portland.
- Varying the customer segment you choose to serve, such as two Los Angeles product photographers — one who specializes in shooting for female-owned apparel brands in the fitness industry, and the other who captures lifestyle shots for urban streetwear brands.
If you can employ it, variety is a great approach — you’re essentially competing by not competing. It’s widely effective because the potential for unique combinations allows brands to leverage those differences enough to be successful, mostly in smaller, localized markets. However, we know that there are only so many people, locations, and means to which a given product can be provided before that offer inevitably begins to overlap with someone else’s.
Creating the desire to be chosen.
Eventually — whether from expanding its reach into a new (or extended) market or having a direct competitor enter theirs — a brand will more than likely reach the point where variety isn’t enough anymore.
This moment is the one where we enter into direct competition, where those distinctions either become so subtle that they no longer matter or push us into a market that just isn’t viable because there aren’t enough resources to sustain it. For example: not having enough 20–25-year-old males in South Beach, Miami who drive blue domestic cars and own medium-sized dogs with names that have no more than four letters.
This is where competition is unavoidable and thus, having a solid strategy really begins to matter. When a brand can’t be the “only,” it then must earn the desire to be chosen — ideally by finding a way to bring more value to its partners and customers than their other options.
Unfortunately, there are no shortcuts; this requires time, iteration, and multiple lines of effort, likely over an extended period — requirements that many startups and small to medium-sized businesses aren’t able to give. So, in the spirit of being scrappy and resourceful, I’ve compiled some quick suggestions that can help get things moving in the right direction right now.
Strategies to distinguish your brand
Decide on a direction
Speed is often used as a compensator when time and resources are limited, which is understandable when the competition is working to out-maneuver you. Feeling like everything needs to be fixed is natural — but it’s also overwhelming and probably unrealistic. Before anyone gets off and moving too quickly, it’s worthwhile to define a clear goal from the onset.
An excellent place to start is by capturing the challenge that the brand faces or the result they want to achieve — such as how to deliver a more enjoyable digital banking experience for the next generation of spenders and savers. While it doesn’t have to be poetic, it does have to be accurate. Doing so will help focus the brand’s efforts toward an aligned outcome, saving them from burning unnecessary resources that they can’t afford on things that won’t ultimately help their cause.
Grab an outsider — or two
Everyone has a degree of predisposition, even if it’s unintentional. Most people become too attached to their ideas or have been too immersed in their business to be objective, which is why a fair amount of companies choose to hire out their creative work. Those who don’t have such a luxury can still grab people they trust to help generate new ideas, challenge existing ones, and provide additional perspectives. After all, creativity usually works best as a team sport.
Leverage what’s already understood.
Predisposition aside, it would be a missed opportunity to deem prior insights and experience as irrelevant — especially when most businesses are the subject matter experts on their brands (they probably have a good idea of what they’re up against as well). Using such information to build context quickly and a snapshot of the current situation can help hone in on where more detail might be useful.
If a closer look needs to be taken at competitors or even the brand itself, things like products, visual styles, customer-base, values, and tone of voice, usually take precedence. While each of these can be important, they can also be limiting or superficial, depending on what the actual problem is.
As it relates to the current goal, take a holistic look at the relationships between key resources, systems, and practices: things like how a product is produced or a service is provided, through what channels it can be delivered, and any partnerships or components needed to sustain the expected quality, volume, and frequency.
Find what’s missing and challenge critical assumptions.
Looking into what’s known often prompts questions about what isn’t. The good news is that discovering new insights and testing assumptions to eliminate guesswork is something that can happen without spending a fortune on research and high-fidelity prototypes.
Much of the data needed is likely readily available through tools like Google’s Digital Marketing Toolbox, Statista, or Answer The Public. Where things tend to stall for business owners isn’t necessarily in finding information, but knowing what to look for and what to do with it. And while that’s going to be different for every situation, confirming trends, habits, perceptions, and the accuracy of current beliefs are great places to start.
Reach out to real people and ask questions.
Countless hours can be spent on worksheets and personalized workshops that put together speculation-based profiles about clients, investors, employees — you name it. What are their beliefs? What kind of car do they drive? What’s their favorite ice cream flavor? This stuff can be a step in the right direction, but nothing beats raw feedback from real people.
If the goal is centered around finding what things bother new moms when they’re traveling internationally or what Venture Capitalists look for when being pitched new ideas — then ask them. Spend some time creating a few objective, open-ended questions around the goal, product, or service, and have a quick conversation with some would-be customers or desired partners.
If no one seems to fit the intended description, work through existing networks for introductions to people who might. If that doesn’t work, then be resourceful: look for articles that might’ve been written by such an individual, check out social media posts, skim public profiles, reviews, and testimonials, and put together what’s available — which is likely a lot.
If a conversation is in the cards, in-person and video chats are ideal because they present the ability to observe actions and body language in addition to audible feedback. However, if that’s not an option due to time, capability, or willing participation, sending some questions through a tool like Google Forms will work great too.
Implement, iterate, and adjust
At some point, action will be required, and at no point will any outcome be guaranteed — no matter how useful the findings are. The only way to know for sure how an approach will perform is to implement it and pay attention to what happens, both immediately and over time.
Most competitive environments are inherently kinetic, which means a business needs to be ready for multiple iterations, revisions, and adjustments along the way. In doing so, keep in mind that there’s usually more than one way to solve any problem; thus, failure doesn’t necessarily call for a new idea, but perhaps a different execution.
Strive to become the extraordinary choice.
Whether using some, all, or none of these suggestions, the point is to become selected over the competition. It doesn’t matter if that’s done by creating stronger connections, designing a more valuable offer, exploring new partnerships and channels, finding new ways to earn and keep attention — or anything else that might tip the scales.
Consider the following lesson from one of the most well-regarded documents on competition ever recorded — The Art of War — believed to have been written over 2,500 years ago by legendary military strategist Sun Tzu:
“Engage people with what they expect; it is what they are able to discern and confirms their projections. It settles them into predictable patterns of response, occupying their minds while you wait for the extraordinary moment — that which they cannot anticipate.” — Sun Tzu, The Art of War
It is in these moments that — in the highly competitive world of “every” — a path to become the extraordinary choice can be created.