Discover Your Brand's Potential

Branding With Distinction

boy-scout-lrgBy Gair Maxwell


Some people use Dells, HPs and Acers, but other people are Apple. Have you ever wondered why?

And how a similar approach to branding could be applied to your own business?

Think about it this way.

Dell, Acer, Samsung, HP, Toshiba and others represent "badges of ownership" in the product category known as personal computers. "Badges of ownership" are common, 'same old-same old' products or services. They are by definition, interchangeable.

Walk in on a person working on a Dell, and offer to replace it with a Toshiba, Acer, HP or any other number of models. Assuming their files are transferred and technical specs are comparable; the other person would at least be open to the idea of trading their machine even-up. However, the same cannot be said if you attempted this experiment on an Apple user. Try offering to swap a Dell, Acer or HP for a Mac and prepare to be subjected to varying degrees of insult and potential bodily harm!

"Badges of ownership" exist in every product or service category and are nothing more than interchangeable commodities. However, Apple serves as a great example of a "brand of distinction" that commands a level of emotional attachment transcending price, products and the purchase itself. Look around and you will notice the same emotionally-charged dynamic surfaces in a wide range of other "brands of distinction"' from luxury brands such as Rolex, Louis Vuitton and Ferrari, to otherwise ordinary products and services like Dove soap, Jack Daniels whiskey, Starbucks coffee, Tilley hats, Nike footwear and Dos Equis beer. A wide range of similarities surface when comparing extremely different 'brands of distinction' from a Harvard degree to yoga wear from LuLu Lemon; from a Harley-Davidson chopper to IKEA home furnishings; from American Girl to Zappos and 1-800-GOT-JUNK?.

Like Apple and other "brands of distinctions", the NFL's Pittsburgh Steelers command an unusually high level of loyalty, respect and profitability, due in no small part to having an unusual grasp of understanding "who" they are and the market they serve. While rival teams throw big money at pricey, showboating free-agents, the Steelers build quietly through the draft, refusing to go "Hollywood". People in Pittsburgh aren't flashy, don't want to be flashy and don't particularly like players who are flashy. As a result, you don't see many Steelers in the tabloids or dating starlets or supermodels. The Steelers don't employ cheerleaders and unlike any other team in professional sports have only employed three head coaches since 1969. By rejecting the cult of personality (which may help sell more souvenirs), the Steelers create a culture of success, where they believe it really counts.

Pittsburgh has won more Super Bowl titles than any other team.

By knowing "who they are" in terms of core identity, purpose and how they measure success, Apple and the Pittsburgh Steelers are great examples of how a "brand of distinction" can serve as a guide to decision-making. This becomes so ingrained in leading organizations that they consciously ask themselves, "How will this decision impact upon the brand?" or "Are we on-brand?"

According to Shelly Lazarus, chairman of Ogilvy & Mather:

"Once you understand what the brand is all about, it gives direction to the whole enterprise. You know what products you're supposed to make and not make. You know how you're supposed to answer your telephone. You know how you're going to package things. It gives a set of principles to an entire enterprise."

In other words, you can't just "copy and paste" the Apple or Steelers story and culture and pretend it's your own. The brutal truth is that "brands of distinction" have something mere marketing can't project or emulate; a brand built on a foundation of truth that exists deep inside the company DNA; a reason for existing beyond profit.

A "reason for existing" translates into a crusade or story where the brand either plays or supports the role of protagonist or hero.

The best examples are rooted in fundamental human truths; Virgin believes ordinary people are often abused by big, faceless corporations and becomes a modern-day Robin Hood with irreverent pokes at the "establishment". Apple believes the power of individuality should always triumph and people should be free to create what they want. Disney believes we should hold on to our childhood imagination and just be kids for a day. The Steelers believe you should take your hard hat to work and focus on fundamentals like running the football and playing great defense.

The best brands in the world transcend their actual product or service and create an emotional bond by knowing at the deepest level why they exist in the first place. Starbucks sells the spirit of community through a "third place" between work and home; Pike's Place Fish Market in Seattle is selling "whistle while you work", not fish. Las Vegas is selling "sin" not tourism; Mont Blanc sells "prestige" not pens; Harley-Davidson sells "rebellion" not motorcycles; Rolex sells "achievement" not watches; Dove sells "self-esteem" not soap; 1-800-GOT JUNK? sells "clean & hip", not trash removal. In other words, they know what the customer is really buying and how it connects to what they already believe.

A "brand of distinction" is not something you buy off the shelf. It's what you know and feel deep in your bones in terms of who you already are, why your business exists (beyond the making of money) and who you are determined to become for the whole world to see. A "brand of distinction" resonates with audiences because its "story" comes from a very real place. Dig into your own history, rediscover why your company was created in the first place, find out its reason for being and determine the greater purpose it serves. Introspection, patience and getting honest feedback will be essential to discover an Apple-worthy branding gem of your own.

What is the one thing you want your company to be known for?