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How to avoid the Brand Trap

Stop following. Stop copying. Stop with the humdrum.

Start leading. Start creating. Start focusing on different.


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".



What's the Brand Trap? I'm glad you asked.


Its 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."


It feels safe. And nobody ever gets fired for being safe.


Of course this absolutely does not work. Such thinking results in a homogeneous market landscape where differentiation is diluted and stamped out. And brand identity becomes foggy. So there is no distinction between all the players in the market.


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 of this?


Usually a relentless price war where the only differentiator is how low you can go.


A struggle for talent. Disengaged customers and staff. Siloed thinking. A disunited leadership.


Does this sound familiar?!



Avoiding the brand trap


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


The key is simple. It's 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 the way the whole business is strategically set up. How it thinks. How it makes decisions (both macro and micro). In how it hires. In how it positions what it is doing. In how it adds value to the market in a way nobody else in the category can. In the way that customers can only get what it is offering.


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".


We are talking about deliberate, conscious, differentiation. Radical differentiation. But differentiation that create huge value in the market. So that customers (and staff!) can ONLY get what you are offering in the way you offer it from you.


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 category] would do - we will do the opposite*"


*As long as it creates value for our audience of course!


Ok ok. I understand. This feels unsafe. It makes us uncomfortable. It feels like a stone in ones shoe. 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.




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.


Leadership

First of all your leadership team needs to buy into this idea and be ready for change. I always suggest that a bottom up and top down approach is undertaken. Leaders should open up this new way of building the future and invite ideas from their staff. Then they should make the choices that lead to a visionary new future. And show everyone what that is and how they are going to get there. This is usually about change. And we need strong, aligned leaders to help that happen.


Focus on unique value you offer

You will 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. Listen to your existing customers. 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 (and the money they want to earn!) - not their customers or people. Make sure you understand the value your brand will add and to whom it will be beneficial for. (The money and commercial's will be a result of that!).


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

It's usual to come across constraints (excuses!) in regulated markets, the public sector or in markets which have been going for some time and its hard to see where new offerings can come in. In these cases often what you do might be similar to your competitors. But think outside of this. Perhaps 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? What is the unqiue value your brand alone offers?


Rally your people

Having a great strategy is one thing. Aligning everyone is another. Getting them to buy in is crucial. Be sure to invest in your communications, leadership and culture so that your people understand and believe in your strategy. Test, learn and embed. Co-create. Invite ideas. Open up the process. Make it your mission to constantly mobilise your resources towards the brand vision.



The Unusual is Your Greatest Asset

So, in conclusion to avoid the 'Brand Trap' brands must strive - not for similarity, but for uniqueness.


The real challenge isn't matching up to the competition but standing out from them. In a way which is of value. And in a way which is exciting.


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 stands out, gets noticed and thrives.


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




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