by Lindsay Pedersen, author of “Forging An Ironclad Brand: A Leader’s Guide“
Whether or not you realize it, brand is tremendously important to every aspect of your business. A well-crafted and well-executed brand strategy can cut through the noise of a million messages, articulate your promise to the customer, set you apart from the competition, scale your business, and establish yourself as a leader in the space.
Problem is, most leaders underestimate and neglect their brand. Even those who think they know brand inside and out often have big misconceptions or serious flaws in their strategy — and in this case, what they don’t know can hurt them.
Misunderstanding brand leads to costly mistakes. Only by recognizing common missteps and avoiding them can you fully realize the power of a strong brand and put your business ahead of the competition.
Brand should be a company’s North Star. It should guide every decision you make. Forging what I call an ironclad brand lets you occupy the single best position in the hearts and minds of your customers. When you pinpoint this optimal position, you’ll be able to create value, maximize scale, and lead with purpose.
On the other hand, a poorly crafted and executed brand position can seriously cost you. Read on for a list of mistakes that too many companies regularly make:
Mistake #1: You don’t claim your brand position at all. Instead you let the market do it for you.
Position happens whether or not you are driving it. If you allow yourself to be positioned by the market, it most likely will not be your optimal brand position for growth. So, the number-one mistake is to underestimate the importance of brand positioning by not intentionally claiming your brand position at all.
Don’t be an accidental brand. It’s too important. A business’s brand can either unleash your competitive advantage or thwart it.
Mistake #2: You delay on brand strategy.
Ironclad brand strategy is not just for established businesses with traction. It is also for start-ups. The sooner you have a brand strategy, the sooner you’ll have both your North Star and your rudder. Know your purpose now — you can always revisit it later as your product gains market fit and momentum. As with any business, you will refine your direction as you learn more about your customer, the competitive space, and your own strengths as a business.
Mistake #3: You focus on the category benefit of your product.
Assuming you do participate in careful brand positioning, the most common business pitfall is choosing a positioning idea that is not ownable and differentiated. Many businesses pin their brands on a category benefit or “table stakes”: a benefit that is not only not unique to the market, but is a must-have for anyone in the space.
If you sell a pancake mix (and your brand isn’t dominant), it’s vital to avoid relying on table stakes like “comfort food on Sunday mornings.” Instead, you have to focus on something that only you bring to the pancake experience. Identify the things you are particularly good at (maybe your mix is healthier than the others, or you deliver a traditional Swedish-style pancake). Then isolate which of these are unique in the market. Finally, determine which of these resonates with your target audience.
Mistake #4: You don’t recognize the vastness of brand.
Lots of people misunderstand brand because a lot of different components and tactics make up brand. It includes things like logos, advertising, TV and social media, the product itself, customer experience, tagline, SEO, font, your business’s personality, and even the color of your employees’ uniforms. But none of these are, by themselves, brand. Brand is the interconnected web of what your business means and how you deliver that meaning, all made possible by your special position in your customer’s universe.
To conflate brand with one of its many manifestations is to miss its power.
Mistake #5: You don’t choose a focus.
Brand strategy includes choosing what you are NOT going to focus on (even though it is scary). By choosing what falls inside your brand purpose, you are also choosing what falls out of it. Focus is how you win. You must muster the courage and effort to undertake this heavy-lifting strategic work.
Choose to stand for something — one thing. In choosing your “yes,” you necessarily choose many “noes.” Shining the light on one thing darkens what lies outside that beam.
Mistake #6: You fail to get the customer’s attention.
A customer can engage with your business only when she knows it exists. That means you must make it easy for them to notice you. The solution isn’t to shout loudly (and most lack the marketing budget to shout loudly enough). The solution instead is to speak with bracing clarity, which most businesses fail to do. Be crystal clear about what your business is and why that matters to customers.
A storefront near my office failed to get my attention. Its windows featured women clad in fleece tunics, and the signage was vague and New Age-y with an obscure tagline. I assumed that this business sold crystals and incense, so I was surprised to learn it was a Pilates studio. I practice Pilates and am in the middle of this business’s target customer profile. But this Pilates studio failed to make their business easy for me to see, so I did not see it. I did not become a customer because they did not make it easy for me to do so.
Mistake #7: You forget to consider the customer’s frame of reference.
A frame of reference is that thing your customer would be using if your product or service didn’t exist. It’s what they would buy instead of your offering. Businesses tend to think about their frame of reference from the business’s perspective, instead of from the customer’s perspective. This is a huge missed opportunity.
It’s easy to know your most persistent direct competitors. But remember that your target is evaluating your offering in the context of other competitive options — both direct competitors and more elusive ‘substitutes.’ Therefore it’s important to consider your brand positioning with respect to all other options your customer might choose, including direct competitors, indirect competitors, and options completely outside of your space.
When it came out in 1975, Atari sold zero units at a toy industry trade show because it was priced at $79, an astronomical price point for the frame of reference of “toys.” It wasn’t until they contacted Sears, which sold a very successful home pinball machine for $200, that they sold 175,000 units by the end of the year. By distributing their console as a home sporting good, they were in a useful context for the customer — and they had a compelling price point.
Mistake #8: Your brand doesn’t have “teeth.”
Your brand strategy must be demonstrably true. It must have the power to make people believe it, trust it, and follow it because it offers compelling proof that it will live up to its promise — in other words, it has teeth. Those teeth can be an attribute, a feature, a fact, a guarantee, an ingredient — any special thing the brand offers and follows through with that provides its promise. The less debatable, the better.
Look at Zappos, a brand that represents best-in-class customer service. That is no squishy promise, because specifics back it up. For example, Zappos displays its phone number on every page of its website. And when you call it, a live person answers and seems genuinely glad you called. The Zappos promise of customer service has teeth.
Mistake #9: You fail to narrow down your target customer.
Your target customers are the people you want to attract more of. They are the people you are most able to delight because of your distinctive strengths. Most businesses characterize them in a superficial way and end up describing little of their inner world. Instead, characterize your target customer as a subtle and empathetic picture of how they view themselves. Remember that identifying your target customer does not eliminate your larger addressable market!
Picture your customers as sprinkled across a dartboard. The full dartboard is your addressable market. You sell to the whole dartboard. The bull’s-eye is your target, the customers you must aim to please the most. The target customers in the middle will ideally influence the customers on the outer circles of the dartboard.
Mistake #10: You wind up too low or too high on the benefit ladder.
A benefit ladder spells out the layers of your benefits from product features and specifications at the bottom, to functional benefits in the middle, to emotional benefits at the top. Savvy leaders choose to shine the spotlight on the rung of the ladder that is as high as their customer currently permits them to go, but no higher. The higher the better, until it is too high. The common errors here are choosing emphasis on the ladder that is either too low (features and product attributes) or too high (the intangible, ethereal benefits).
If you are too low on the ladder, features will not create high enough value for your customer that she will be moved to buy and pay meaningfully for your offering. When your focus is too high on the ladder, you are not providing accessible scaffolding for the customer to believe your promise. The linchpin of a ladder is its middle. The middle is low enough to be accessible to the customer — sharp-edged, believable, rationally easy-to-grasp. Focusing on the ladder’s middle enables you to deliver substantial value, gain a sizeable and defensible position, and appeal to emotions.
Mistake #11: You try to reach all customers with one-size-fits-all messaging.
There are five stages of a customer’s journey with your brand: Unaware, Aware, Consider, Purchase, and Loyal. Your goal should be to craft a messaging hierarchy for customers at every stage of the journey. Unfortunately, many people are tempted to develop a sentence or paragraph so great that it will serve all your purposes — all stages of the journey. Resist the temptation. There is no one magic message that will advance all customers at all journey stages.
Further, it’s a mistake to conflate stages of the journey, either coming on too strong too soon (conflating the Aware or Consider stage with the Purchase stage) or bragging about your product features to someone not yet liking the promise (conflating the Consider or Purchase stage with the Loyal stage). Take your fences one at a time.
It’s never too late to brush up on brand and start making better choices for your business. Don’t let past mistakes derail your future success. Even if you recognize yourself or your product or service in every common mistake, you can still turn things around by making changes that will help you thrive starting today.
Lindsay Pedersen is the author of “Forging An Ironclad Brand: A Leader’s Guide“. She is a brand strategist and leadership coach who views brand as a blend of science, intuition, behavioral economics, and ancient storytelling. She developed the Ironclad Method™ while building brands with companies such as Starbucks, Clorox, Zulily, T-Mobile, IMDb, and burgeoning startups.