top of page

Escaping the Brand Trap

In each marketplace, countless brands vie for attention, each trying to outshine the others.

Yet, in their pursuit of success, many inadvertently fall into what I call the "Brand Trap" - a state of mimicry where brands look alike, speak alike, and offer indistinguishable services or products. As a customer, the experience you have interacting with one brand will be indistinguishable from another. This is especially the case, I find, in B2B markets.

It's a phenomena I come across all the time as a strategy consultant.

I find it's often driven by the desire to emulate the categories leaders. The faulty, but seemingly logical strategy could be summarised as this: "If we want to be successful we need to copy the number 1 in the category."

Of course this absolutely does not work. Such thinking results in a homogeneous market landscape where differentiation is diluted, and brand identity becomes foggy.

The Brand Trap is essentially a strategic misstep, where companies prioritise imitation over innovation. It feels safe. But in reality its the most dangerous thing you can do.

Because what's the consequence?

Usually a relentless price war where the only differentiator is how low you can go. A struggle for talent. Disengaged customers and staff. Who really wants that?

Avoiding the brand trap

But there's a beacon of hope, a way to navigate away from this trap - a different kind of thinking.

The key is for you and your brand to stand out in the market. And I don't mean in terms of the colour or font choices someone in Marketing decides they like. I'm talking about in the way the whole business is strategically set. In how you hire. In how you position what you are doing. In how you add value to the market in a way nobody else in the category can. In the way that customers can only get what you are offering from your brand.

My mentor, Marty Neumeier, in his work "ZAG," articulates the importance of differentiation through what he calls the "onlyness" statement. Neumeier suggests that every brand must be able to complete the sentence: "Our brand is the only that..." This exercise forces companies to look beyond surface-level attributes and dig deep into what truly sets them apart from their competitors. The idea is that "when everybody Zigs, Zag".

Basically a solid brand strategy knows what you are not and knows what you are. It deliberately ensures that you do not become like others in your market. That you become an alternative choice.

In essense this strategic thinking would sound like this: "What ever the [no.1 brand in our strategy] would do - we will do the opposite"

Is this intuitive - maybe not initially. It feels like it's the unsafe option. But the reality is that if you do this in a way which creates real value and in a way which is not copyable - it is the most logical and safe option. It has to be done authentically. It has to be done with integrity. It has to be done with leadership. But when it clicks, thats where success is found.

Are you in the trap?

The difference between falling into the Brand Trap and escaping it can significantly affect your brand's market position and overall success. Here’s a general look at what you might experience in each scenario:

Experiences in the Brand Trap:

  1. Commoditisation Your offerings feel increasingly commoditised as they become indistinguishable from the competition, pushing you into competing primarily on price.

  2. Customer Indifference Customers find it difficult to differentiate your brand from others, leading to lower loyalty and engagement.

  3. Marketing Ineffectiveness Your marketing efforts yield diminishing returns because the messages mirror what's already out there, making it harder to capture attention.

  4. Talent Retention Challenges A lack of clear brand identity can make it difficult to attract and retain top talent who seek companies with a clear mission and distinct culture.

  5. Limited Growth Growth plateaus as differentiation becomes harder, limiting your ability to attract new market segments.

  6. Risk Aversion There’s a pervasive risk-averse culture that prioritizes safety over innovation, stifling creativity and adaptability.

  7. Leadership mis-alignment Everyone seems to be pulling in different directions. Things are splintered and egos are getting in the way of progress.

Experiences Having escaped the Brand Trap:

  1. Brand Loyalty and Advocacy Customers not only recognise your unique value but become brand advocates, sharing their positive experiences with others because they can only get what you are offering from you!

  2. Enhanced Market Position With clear differentiation, your brand occupies a distinct position in the market, often allowing for premium pricing.

  3. Effective Marketing Marketing becomes more effective as it resonates more deeply with targeted audiences, leveraging unique selling points that are authentic to your brand.

  4. Attracting Talent A strong, distinct brand attracts top talent and partners who are aligned with your vision and values, improving retention and satisfaction.

  5. Sustainable Growth Innovation and uniqueness open new avenues for growth, including untapped markets and customer segments eager for fresh solutions.

  6. Cultural Vibrancy The brand exudes a vibrant, innovation-friendly culture that encourages risk-taking and creativity, continually reinforcing its unique market position and vision

  7. Leadership alignment All leaders are in sync and pulling in the same direction. People put egos and politics to one side for tje greator good and progress towards the brand vision and big idea!

Strategies to Avoid the Brand Trap

So how can you get there? How can you build a brand that really makes a dent? That stands out. How can you ensure you and your team do not fall into the brand trap.

Focus on unique value you offer

You need to make some strategic decisions about what you are not as well as what you are - and why that is a good thing. Focus on the value you create. Align and rally around that. Create that value in a way nobody else in your category is doing. Innovate so that customers get experiences consistent with your strategy.

Find a big idea

Find out the idea that truly sets your brand apart. If you dig back into the origins of why you business began you'll usually find a big, unusual, brave idea that will set you apart. Unearth that and use it to push ahead with confidence toward a big vision.

Make it about them not you

Leaders can often make the mistake of making their visions about themselves - not their customers or people. Make sure you understand the value your brand will add and to whom it will be beneficial for.

Innovate, Don't Imitate

Drawing inspiration from industry leaders is one thing, but copying them is a shortcut to obscurity. Focus on innovation and how your products or services can offer something genuinely new or improved in a way which aligns to your strategy. And do it differently.

Customer Experience as a Differentiator

Often what you do might be similar to your competitors. Perhaps then the opportunity is in how you do it. Consider how you can enhance the customer experience in a way that’s uniquely yours. This could be through exceptional service, an innovative user interface, or community building. It’s not just about what you sell, but how you sell it and how you make your customers feel.

Focus on Your 'Onlyness'

Reflect on Marty Neumeier's "onlyness" statement. What can your brand claim as its unique space in the market? How does your purpose and mission align with what your customers value?

Rally your people

Having a great strategy is one thing. Aligning everyone is another. Be sure to invest in your communications, leadership and culture so that your people understand and believe in your strategy. Test, learn and embed. Make it your mission to constantly mobilise your resources towards the brand vision.

The Unusual is Your Greatest Asset

So, in conclusion brands must strive - not for similarity, but for uniqueness.

The real challenge isn't matching up to the competition but standing out from them.

By focusing on what's authentic and unique to your brand — be it your story, your mission, or the way you engage with customers — you can create a space where your brand not only exists but thrives.

By doing this, you will escape the horrors of "The Brand Trap".


bottom of page