The brand differentiation myth: Are you really prepared to pay the price?

One of the mantras of the brand industry is this notion that every company, every organisation, every corner shop has to have some unique offering that sets it apart.

The principal that underpins the idea is that one of the functional purposes of a brand is to help consumers decide who they will choose in the market place.

I agree with the logic underpinning that but I think there is also a point at which the obsession with being different can go too far.  More to the point, it just isn’t that simple.

For every product category consumers will have a set of basic expectations – what some marketers refer to as hygiene factors.  I expect that my house will have a roof, my car will have wheels and that my accountant will know how to add up. 

Funnily enough, or perhaps not so funny, there are examples of companies that have built a successful brand out of boasting of their ability to meet these basic expectations.  In my town we have a plumbing company that pitches for business every day on the basis that their tradesmen will turn up on time.  (As many of us who’ve sacrificed half a day to wait for a tradesman can attest, we’d be grateful if they turned up at all!)

But putting these examples aside, trying to find your point of genuine differentiation can be difficult.  Price is probably the most dangerous one.  You can see what has happened in the retail world.  It is like a game of economic limbo: every entrant in the market just tries to go a little bit lower.  After a while the crowd just expects it.  But the race to the bottom means little value is placed on the product – it is just about price.  Marketers call this the commoditisation of the market place ... your product or service is just another commodity (yawn, what’s for dinner tonight?)

Then there is service.  If you want to read a brilliant book on the genuine challenge of turning service delivery into a brand differentiator, then try Joe Calloway’s Becoming a Category of One.  The problem, as Calloway points out, is that all your competitors (if you are really honest) aren’t THAT bad.  Banks in Australia are a good example.  Yes, there was a time when they were closing branches.  But they pretty quickly realised their mistake and while few people could really be in love with their bank, most of the time their service is acceptable. (With the exception of call centre waiting times and branch queues perhaps).

So what does that leave us with?  I think the answer to that is a simple word: Relationship.  Now this doesn’t apply to every category I accept that … especially in the online world.  The other word we might use is trust but for me that is a benefit that comes from a company that genuinely wants to have a relationship with its clients or customers.  Screech – loud breaking noise: Let’s read that sentence again with an emphasis on the critical words: a company THAT GENUINELY WANTS TO HAVE A RELATIONSHIP with its clients or customers.

The word relationship in business is almost as abused as the word strategy.  But it implies a depth that most of us don’t stop to think about.

Being in a relationship means commitment, it means that you will go above and beyond and that you will make sacrifices in time and energy to keep the “relationship” alive.

It means some stirring of the emotions.  That’s the really tough bit once a company gets beyond the size of the corner shop.  Relationship is fundamentally related to humanity.  Unfortunately many large organisations have become increasingly obsessed with eliminating the human factor from their business model: That’s because human beings are essentially frail and prone to failing.  We fall back on automation and systems and processes that override the ability of human beings to show discretion.

This whole trend started in manufacturing and for good reason and comes with great benefits.  Just look at the reliability of motor vehicles to see the benefits we consumers have reaped from this kind of approach.

I accept that as any organisations becomes bigger and its operations are stretched beyond a handful of people, we all need systems and processes to keep things running efficiently.

But what I increasingly see are companies trying to manufacture a brand to place on top of that largely inhuman structure and then wondering why their customers don’t see them as different to everyone else.

I see this a lot.  The CEO sets out to transform the corporate culture urging employees to put the customer first; there’s lot of singing and dancing but 18 months down the track, nothing has changed.  Sure, you changed the corporate mission statement and had the brand agency release a new video, but the systems that underpin the delivery to customers remains the dominant influencer of customer experience.  As much as your employees may genuinely want to do the right thing, you’ve built a structure around them that is choking the brand to death.  So your so-called exercise in differentiation dies before it has even started.

So, I keep on coming back to relationship.  And that’s why genuine differentiation is much more difficult than most companies are prepared to accept.  It means reaching down deep and wide into your organisation – not just a one-hour workshop or three month brand review.

You have to design your systems and processes with a genuine desire to positively impact on relationships - on making life better for the people you exist to serve.  That’s why true brand differentiation is a truly rare commodity.  It is expensive and difficult.  That’s why it’s so rare but equally, so valuable.