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  Ted Mininni Brand Differentiation Doesn't Cut It Anymore
by Ted Mininni
December 17, 2007

How many times have we, as marketers, heard that differentiation is utterly crucial to the unique positioning of a brand? Sounds simple, neat, clear-cut. The only thing is: successful, real-life marketing is never that simple.

Brand differentiation just doesn’t cut it anymore. In fact, it never did. Recognized brands in the marketplace with perceived unique products or services have the potential to make it as category leaders. So goes the prevailing wisdom. That knowledge lulls many marketers into a sense of false security, even as their brands fall flat—leaving them to scratch their heads and wonder why.

The fact is that brand differentiation in and of itself is meaningless unless it goes to the core of what the brand really is and what it truly stands for. Authenticity resonates. The “what” of the brand goes directly to its raison d’etre, its mission and its core values. Furthermore, it had better be aligned with the internal culture of the company. If a company’s brand is authentic, and if it is embraced by everyone in the organization with consistency, vibrancy, and even downright passion, then that brand rings true to the customer.


Without the delivery of deeply emotional, connecting experiences between the customer and the brand (read: as conveyed by the company’s brand ambassadors, namely each employee who interacts with the consumer), the attempt to position the brand as merely differentiated fails miserably. After all, people bring brands to life. How can the consumer perceive a truly “differentiated” brand if employees can’t?

Hence, the overriding need for ongoing internal branding in every organization. Getting everyone within a company to buy into, believe in and live the brand is one of the most essential components of marketing. Yet, this is surprisingly a hit or miss proposition in most companies.

The Customer Experience Factor
Companies continually emphasize the need to deliver satisfying customer experiences, yet basic customer service continues to be an issue. University of Michigan Ross School of Business Professor Claes Fornell: “The strength of a firm’s customer relationships is not only an important economic asset, it represents the sum total of the firm’s all other assets.”

Now, realizing this, how important is it to make certain the brand is authentic? How crucial is it to make certain that brand is aligned with the company culture? And finally, how meaningful is it to deliver stellar customer service and compelling experiences to the customer? Answer: this should be the primary focus of not only Marketing, Human Resources and their departments, but from the CEO or president through the entire company flow chart.

Internal branding effort isn’t a “one and done” deal, either. It’s an ongoing campaign. Otherwise, the brand’s full potential will never be realized. Just stop a moment and reflect on some of the brands that truly lead:

  • Motorcycles are ingrained in our culture: freedom, the open road, the lure of adventure. There are numerous motorcycle brands, and then there is Harley-Davidson.
  • MP3 players are a phenomenon. There are numerous brands, and then there is Apple’s iPod.
  • Java is a necessity of life for most of us. There are lots of chic coffee houses and gathering spots, and then there is Starbucks.
  • Athletic shoes are sported by everybody. There are sneaker brands and then there is Nike.
  • Video game systems are more popular than ever. There are many video machine brands, but only one Sony and its Playstation.
  • There are many theme parks and entertainment venues, and then there is Disney World.

Not only are these brands’ adherents loyal customers; they are brand evangelists for the most part. And we all know the power of WOM (word of mouth) marketing. Distinctive communities have formed around brands like these.

This offers us proof that brands transcend their categories when they:

  • Deliver great customer service thanks to passionate brand ambassadors
  • Deliver customer experiences that form connections on a deeply emotional level
  • Consistently deliver on the brand promise
  • Remain authentic and true to their core

Question: Does a brand have to have the visibility, revenue stream and global presence of an Apple or Starbucks to be a leader? No, it doesn’t.

Much smaller corporate brands like Trader Joe’s natural/organic grocery stores with a mere 270+/- stores in roughly half the country; Chico’s, the casual clothing retailer for mature women with selected locations across the US; Umpqua Bank doing business regionally in the Pacific Northwest and California; Jones Soda with its unorthodox, early approach to product placement, followed by more mainstream distribution; all are extremely authentic and unique.

These are all brands that inspire incredible brand passion and loyalty, even cult-like devotion from their customers. Yet, none of them have the reach of brands like Nike or Sony.

Caution: These brands shouldn’t be a blueprint for entrepreneurs. They’re all one of a kind. What they can do: inspire more trail blazing brands filled with authenticity, passion, and uniqueness. The next truly differentiated brand is just waiting to be born.

   Ted Mininni is President of Design Force, Inc., the leading package and licensing program design consultancy to the consumer product and entertainment industries. He can be reached at 856-810-2277.

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Brand Differentiation Doesn't Cut It Anymore
 This article should have been titled "Make sure company staff is inhaling your brand plan"....differentation is not the villain here. We see employees as functional resources; we don't see them as the "brand promises" they are, Dennis Ramdeen 
Dennis Ramdeen, Managing Director, pepper advertising - December 17, 2007
 This article should have been titled "Make sure company staff is inhaling your brand plan"....differentation is not the villain here. We see employees as functional resources; we don't see them as the "brand promises" they are, Dennis Ramdeen 
Dennis Ramdeen, Managing Director, pepper advertising - December 17, 2007
 I agree with the previous comment. We believe creating rich and enduring brand cultures is what's critically important, but this can also be interpreted as just another means of brand differentiation. Let's differentiate between product/service differentiation and brand differentiation. The latter is what many companies need to embrace in today's consumer-driven marketplace in order to succeed in the long-term. 
Mike Mirkil, Director of Business Development, ID Branding - December 17, 2007
 Brands will continue to be complex and multi-disciplinary entitities. The current and old things which defined brands will still hold, but there is an evolution in the thinking and the application of brands in the hearts and minds of consumers. A great number of companies today, is still unable to understand the importance of having an integrated brand strategy, where your employees are the primary custodians of the brand...but we are evolving and the focus is shifting to the rest of your stakeholders, where they are the protectors, promoters, owners, intelligence and drivers of your brand as the diffferentiator. 
Mulligan George Pearce, Brand Executive, Telkom South Africa - December 18, 2007
 Articles like these are important because they point to the need for a fundamental shift in corporate thinking. Employees should not be viewed as mere units of production, but as brand emissaries. Corporate brand value is built on both tangibles and intangibles. The attitude toward, and embrace of the corporate brand among customer-facing personnel is a key intangible.

How do companies themselves determine the value of their employees--their human capital--and how do they consciously work to instill their brands in their personnel? What does that in turn deliver to their overall corporate brand value? Crucial questions for every company's executives. They should be posed and they should be honestly answered. 
Claire Ratushny, Proprietor, Write Strategy - December 19, 2007
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