The Key to Differentiation: Build a Brand, Not a Company

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In the midst of ceaseless competition in the startup world, standing out may sometimes seem like an impossible task. Today, everyone is “innovating”, unveiling the “next big thing”, and claiming that what they are bringing to the market is the next best thing since sliced bread. So in a world where, frankly, no idea is original, is uniqueness unachievable? Simply put: No. While it’s easier said than done, the key to differentiating yourself is by creating a brand, not a company. Authentic brands are like snowflakes, or fingerprints — each one is distinctly different from the next.

One of the most common misperceptions in business is that if you are selling something then you are automatically a brand. Wrong. A brand is what your business represents in the collective mind of your customers. Think of the brand as a sensory system that transforms your lifeless, transactional business into a living-breathing organism, able to connect with the human psyche and elicit real, often irrational, emotions. These emotional cues become the symbolic currency that people actually trade when they transact with a business. Brands are built from common elements, including:

Purpose:

A brand has a higher purpose than the desire to sell goods or services to make a buck. A brand’s purpose is the human value of what your products and services provide. For example, if you’re a startup in the currently hot Robo-Advisor space, your purpose is not to sell clients stocks or mutual funds that outperform benchmarks, but to help your clients on the road to financial empowerment so they can lead more fulfilling lives. Purpose is often the way to achieve relevance in the mind of the customer.

Character:

A business with a brand understands who they are. A business with a great brand understands who they are not. Each of us is distinguishable from the other six billion people on earth through the individualities that make up our persona. Think of any brand (i.e. Apple) as a person – imagine what characteristics they’d have if you met them in Starbucks. Would you want to talk with them? What would you talk about? How would you represent yourself in their presence? These are the same questions prospective customers ask when choosing a company to do business with.

Consistency:

As customers and prospects develop a relationship with a brand over time, they also develop expectations. Customers’ expectations are formed through their experience with the company’s products, marketing communications, and level of customer service. The moment a company breaks consistency, people will feel abandoned and actually more disappointed than if the brand had never existed to begin with. Consistency allows a brand to develop meaning over time and gives customers familiarity in how they feel about their interactions with the brand.

These are just some of the important elements that separate a brand from a business. A lot of research, assessment, introspection, and honesty is necessary to make the transformation from a business to a brand. Many startups don’t have the resources, time or attention to dedicate to a comprehensive brand campaign. However, there is a step that any business, regardless of age or development, can take in order to begin the journey towards developing a real brand that customers will identify with: Brand Narrative.

I read an interesting story in INC. recently that talked about the importance of startups developing a company or brand story. This excerpt really struck a chord in me:

Indeed, many VCs think of themselves as investors in stories, and storytellers, every bit as much as investors in companies. “How well does the founder’s life explain what they’re doing at their company?” asks Scott Weiss, a general partner at Silicon Valley venture firm Andreessen Horowitz.

So, how do you get started? Simple. Ask yourself these three questions: Who am I? Where did I come from? Why am I doing this? Simon Sinek, motivational speaker and author of Start With Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone To Take Action, explains in his TED talk:

By “why,” I mean: What’s your purpose? What’s your cause? What’s your belief? Why does your organization exist? Why do you get out of bed in the morning? And why should anyone care? As a result, the way we think, we act, the way we communicate is from the outside in, it’s obvious. We go from the clearest thing to the fuzziest thing. But the inspired leaders and the inspired organizations — regardless of their size, regardless of their industry — all think, act and communicate from the inside out.

Think long and hard about why you’ve dedicated countless hours, and sacrificed so much to bring your ideas to fruition. Much of it will come naturally. Once you have the answers, share them with your colleagues – with everyone for that matter – and develop the story until it starts to make its way organically into everything you do. Eventually, your story will start telling itself, attracting listeners and turning them into customers, transforming your business into what you truly need in order to be successful: a brand.

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