Prioritizing Differentiation in Brand Strategy – Part 1

Is your brand positioned against its competitors in a meaningful way? Does it own a place in consumers’ minds that actually matters to them? Unfortunately, too many brand strategies are missing the point of strategic differentiation these days. Instead, they fall back on the easy differentiators like price and service that are not only a dime-a-dozen these days but also limits the success of those brands to the position of category placeholders rather than true leaders. In my new series for AYTM, Prioritizing Differentiation in Brand Strategy, you’ll learn how to prioritize differentiation in your brand strategy, so your brand doesn’t become a category placeholder or worse — a commodity.

What is Strategic Brand Differentiation?

Strategic brand differentiation is the positioning of your brand against others in a meaningful way that matters to consumers. Each person values factors that differentiate one brand from the next in their own ways. Therefore, strategic brand differentiation takes the concept of positioning to a deeper level. It gives a brand greater importance to consumers because they can integrate it directly into their own lives. Its place within their lives holds some kind of meaning to them.

A brand manager’s job is to determine how to make the brand meaningful to consumers by identifying those differentiators that not only make a brand important to consumers but also affect their purchase decisions.

For example, Starbucks sells coffee. Starbucks coffee has a premium price tag attached to it that consumers don’t mind paying. That’s because Starbucks has created a strategic brand differentiator that is meaningful to consumers and not offered by other brands. Starbucks created a sub-category within the coffee category that appealed to consumers’ emotions. The entire Starbucks brand experience was meaningful to consumers and enables Starbucks to charge a higher price for its coffee than competitors like Dunkin’ Donuts.

Another great example is Harley Davidson. Consumers buy Harley Davidson products because of the strategic brand differentiators that make the brand more meaningful to them. They’re paying for the Harley Davidson brand promise and experience of freedom and camaraderie. They seek out the brand over all others because that strategic differentiator is important to them.

How to Avoid Empty Differentiation

It’s easy to fall victim to making empty promises by relying on differentiators that hold little meaning in consumers’ minds. Remember, branding is all about creating the right perceptions in consumers’ minds. Brands that rely on differentiators like price and service will lose in the long run for two reasons:

  1. Any brand can undercut your prices at anytime.
  2. Every brand claims to have amazing service but few deliver. Consumers know this and ignore these claims.

In other words, brands are relying on pricing promotions to generate short-term sales rather than focusing on strategic differentiators that build brand loyalty, repeat purchases, and word-of-mouth marketing for the long-term. Short-sited brand strategies are a mistake. Furthermore, it seems to consumers like every brand promotes amazing customer service but since the reality of that service is often far from amazing, the claim has become completely meaningless to consumers.

The lesson to learn as you develop your brand differentiation strategy is this — find a key differentiator that is meaningful, important, and influential to your target consumer audience and then own that differentiator within your market. It’s not easy to do and requires a great deal of market research and analysis, but that’s exactly what the Prioritizing Differentiation in Brand Strategy series is going to help you do. Stay tuned to the AYTM blog for more!

Image: Barun Patro, Matthias Schack

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Susan Gunelius
Susan Gunelius, MBA is a 25-year marketing and branding expert and President and CEO of KeySplash Creative, Inc., a marketing communications company. She is the author of 10 books about marketing, branding and social media, and her marketing-related articles appear on top media websites such as Entrepreneur.com and Forbes.com. She is also the Founder and Editor in Chief of WomenOnBusiness.com, an award-winning blog for business women.