Blog

In the Face of Stiff Competition, Focus on Differentiation

applesAs companies merge, grow and gain global status, our job as branding experts is to preserve their relevant differentiation, keeping their brand unique.

There is a strong tendency for two competitors engaged in a long-time battle to begin to adopt the other’s tactics, appearance or behavior. This is called the Iron Law of Emulation. Look at Avis and Hertz, Chevron and Shell, Coke and Pepsi, and United and American. Doing competitive analysis is one thing, but doing it so much that you begin to resemble your competitor—that’s when your brand can run into trouble.

Setting Yourself Apart
There are a few questions that we ask as we begin working with clients who fall in this category:

  • What is your company’s vision for the future?
  • What role does your company want to play in that future?
  • What is your company best at?
  • What does your company really care about?
  • If your company didn’t exist, what would the world lose?

These questions provide ways to help a company focus on its unique identity and purpose. If a company can’t answer these questions clearly, they risk becoming just a commodity that can only compete on price.

When I was just starting out in this business years ago, Edwin Land, the co-founder of the Polaroid Corporation, sat in on a presentation I gave on differentiating yourself in the marketplace. Afterward, Mr. Land said to me that my presentation wasn’t relevant to him or his business, because at that time, Polaroid was the only place that provided instant photography—if you wanted instant photography, you had to choose Polaroid. Polaroid’s differentiator was that it was the only provider of instant photography. Eventually, Mr. Land and I ended up working together on his company’s packaging and display presence around the world. Even though he felt Polaroid didn’t have competition to worry about, he wanted his brand to be presented powerfully and consistently worldwide. He wanted people to understand how his brand was differentiated from all other traditional cameras and film.

0
2

What I Learned About Branding From Aristotle Onassis

Aristotle OnassisIn 1975, I had the enjoyable experience of being the guest of Jackie and Aristotle Onassis at the El Morocco club in New York City. It was New Year’s Eve, and while I had worked with Jackie previously, I was meeting Mr. Onassis for the first time. I explained my profession in corporate branding to him, and his subsequent advice surprised me. It was completely related to image; not a word he said dealt with financial or investment advice.

“Drink where the rich drink, even if it means sipping one drink,” he said. “Live at an upscale address, even if it is the worst accommodations in the neighborhood. Exercise. Stay tan, even if you use a tanning lamp.” To me, his advice was this: To be successful, act successful and network with successful people. This is good advice for building your personal brand.

Using Your Personal Brand to Engage Others

But Mr. Onassis’s advice relates to more than just your personal brand or image. It also relates to how successful you are at reaching your intended audience—both within your organization and externally. When you think about what your personal image is, it’s really a combination of four things:

  1. Appearance: How are you dressed? Do you have good posture?
  2. Personality: How well do you communicate? Is it apparent that you have a good attitude?
  3. Competencies: Can you easily fulfill what’s required of you?
  4. Differentiation: What traits or skills separate you from everyone else?

These elements must be suited to your audience and the milieu you—and your organization—operate in.

Over the course of my career I’ve spent time in Hollywood, New York, Washington DC and Silicon Valley. Each place thinks it’s the center of the world and each has its own values, styles and characteristics. If you went down to Google’s headquarters wearing a three-piece suit, you’d be rejected. So just as you need to think about the signals you’re putting out with your personal image, you need to do the same when it comes to your audience. You need to understand, attract, and engage your audience.

If you’re going to operate across these different arenas you need to be sensitive to each audience and understand what resonates with them. Only then will you be successful.

0
0

When Naming or Renaming, Go Short

Brand logoIs there a correlation between the length of a name and success? It is human nature to shorten words to make communication easier and more efficient. People will eliminate the unnecessary part of the word, while keeping the meaningful part:

  • Omnibus becomes bus
  • Motion picture becomes movie
  • Television becomes TV
  • Gasoline becomes gas
  • Coca-Cola becomes Coke

Since companies don’t want to put obstacles in the way of communicating their names, short communicative names of one or two syllables are generally more successful. For example:

  • Apple
  • Target
  • Chevron
  • Dell
  • Nike
  • Visa

Short and Successful

This human tendency to shorten names can have a direct impact on your organization’s value. A recent story in The Harvard Business Review noted new research demonstrating that companies with short, easy-to-process names were more likely to attract investors, generate more stock trading and have higher valuations.

According to the study “Company Name Fluency, Investor Recognition, and Firm Value,” corporate renaming generally increased a name’s “fluency” and as a result translated into more value. Shortening name length by one word could result in a $3.75 million increase in value for a mid-size company.

Renaming

If your organization doesn’t have a short, simple name, what can you do?

Sometimes the public renames your organization for you. The San Francisco 49ers become the Niners. Nicknames like this convey fondness and familiarity. Sometimes they can be prompted. One of my favorite billboards in New York read: Our name is The Irving National Bank and Trust Corporation (You can call us Irving.)

We often see a long, cumbersome name as the result of a merger or acquisition. The investment bankers and lawyers who are involved aren’t thinking about corporate identity strategy. They’re thinking about closing the deal, and they don’t want the name to get in the way.

Yet this creates problems down the road in ways that end up costing the organization. If a company name is long and difficult to shorten, often the only hope is to go to initials. For example, PricewaterhouseCoopers goes by PwC. But initials make weak names. They are difficult to remember, easily confused and hard to relate to—unless billions of dollars are spent over decades to make them familiar (e.g., IBM, NBC, GE).

The better course? Even in the case of a merger or acquisition, it’s usually better to look forward to the opportunity of a shorter, more fluent name instead of backward. When in doubt, go short.

Learn about Marshall’s work in naming and naming systems.

0
2

Who Owns the Letter X?

Logo_XIt’s no longer “X” marks the spot on a treasure map. The use of “X” first increased as it became a go-to variable in beginning algebra. Then it evolved to become a secret ingredient of success, someone’s “X factor”. Now “X” seems to mark every spot, having found its way into the identities of a slew of companies, products and even universities in an attempt to create the perception that they are on the cutting edge. But what does it mean anymore, and can anyone rightfully own it?

There are several ways in which “X” has been used:

  •  Xerox was one of the first and logical users of “X”.
  • For EXXON, one “X” was not enough.
  • The X Games drew a new breed of sports enthusiasts to ESPN.
  • Microsoft wisely left its brand off the naming of XBox, the company’s successful entry into the gaming and entertainment market. But now it needs wordier names, such as XBox One and XBox Entertainment Studios, to explain why XBox still matters.
  • Comcast launched its Xfinity service to divert attention from its troubled brand though a new, hyperbolic and space-aged entertainment sub brand. In the end, it just confused a lot of people.
  • Ted, a set of global conferences, used TedX presumably to indicate an extension or auxiliary to the original, exclusive event.
  • Space transport company SpaceX seems to say it is headed to places unknown, perhaps in the same vein as the algebraic “solve for X” mode. It is instructive to think of the context of the X PRIZE, and www.x.com, Elon Musk’s first startup.
  • Universities are now joining the fray, each with its own purpose. Stanford’s StartX is an investment fund for student entrepreneurs. HarvardX is “a bold experiment to push the boundaries of learning through reimagined teaching, unprecedented research and cutting-edge technology,” or a response to the quandary of online learning.

With so many uses, all saying different, but ostensibly trendy things, is “X” going to go the way of “e”? Does it still add the desired magic to any identity? Can any one company or project really own it anymore? Or, is it really just a weak substitute for a creative expression of unique value?

If you’re thinking about using a trendy letter in your name, there are a few questions you should ask yourself:

  • Are you using the letter to say something meaningful, or just to get attention? Attention getters typically have shorter shelf lives.
  • Does the use of a trendy letter create sustainable differentiation, or do you risk blending in over time as others adopt the same idea? This tactic has a very low barrier to adoption.
  • How long will it be before the trend is over and the market has moved past your naming convention?

Some companies have managed to take true ownership of trendy letter. Apple has done quite well (and protected itself very aggressively) with “i”. VMware has made a strong case for its ownership of lowercase “v”. The bottom line: be sure that what you’re doing is relevant, ownable and works with your overall brand strategy.

0
2