Hint: If it doesn’t have these nine key criteria, the answer may be yes…If you dismiss brand or delegate it to someone else, your business will suffer, says Lindsay Pedersen. On the other hand, an ironclad brand strategy drives every decision your company makes. Here, complete with real-world examples, is what yours should look like
Seattle, WA (May 2019)—How strong is your company’s brand strategy? If they’re honest, many owners and business leaders would have to answer, “I’m not sure.” That’s because very few leaders understand brand, says Lindsay Pedersen. They (wrongly) believe it’s “squishy,” elusive, and superficial. The truth is, nothing is more powerful than a beloved brand—it’s what differentiates your business from everyone else’s and establishes the conditions for you to thrive.
“Product can be copied, patents expire, and features become obsolete,” says Pedersen, author of Forging an Ironclad Brand: A Leader’s Guide. “What cannot be copied are relationships. What does not expire is the trust you earn by consistently solving a customer need. What never gets old is delight. A great brand strategy yields all these benefits. It creates loyal customers who stay with you.”
Pedersen says brand should be a company’s North Star. Every decision you make should be filtered through it. Forging 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. (See tipsheet for Pedersen’s eight-step methodology.)
“Unfortunately, few leaders put in the work it takes to do this, and the result is a weak, anemic brand,” she says. “Dismissing brand results in a barren business, inhospitable for your customers, your employees, and all who benefit from knowing and experiencing the value you bring.”
Pedersen says the most value-creating brand strategies are the ones that meet these nine criteria:
BIG: Your brand promise must be big enough to matter. This is the space you own in your customer’s head. Make it a big space, a big promise. This will create value for both your customer and your business. By mattering to your customer, you fuel a business that matters.
EXAMPLE: Salesforce enables leaders to grow their businesses faster. This is a large and resonant promise for Salesforce’s target customer. A less big alternative might have been “track customer communication carefully” or “largest storage capacity among CRM solutions.” With its big promise, Salesforce is a beloved brand with a tremendous market capitalization.
NARROW: It must be narrow enough to own. While your brand positioning must be big enough to matter, it also must be narrow enough for you to dominate. Choose a positioning you uniquely can own—one where you are not just better, but you are different.
EXAMPLE: Dollar Shave Club chose a meaning narrow enough to own. They unabashedly targeted millennial males not loyal to the status quo way of buying shaving materials. With a subscription-based razor delivery model, Dollar Shave Club outflanked Gillette by not distributing through traditional retailers.
ASYMMETRICAL: It must use your lopsided advantage. Promise and deliver from your place of dramatically asymmetrical strength. (It’s asymmetrical because your edge comes not from being medium-good at a lot of things, but from being excellent at one thing.) Your positioning must pinpoint precisely what only you can bring to your customer that others cannot copy.
EXAMPLE: GORE-TEX has an asymmetrical advantage in waterproof fabrics. By inventing and patenting the technology for their fabric in 1969, they claimed the gold standard in waterproof fibers. As a result, GORE-TEX waterproof fabric is used in products manufactured by Patagonia, L.L. Bean, Oakley, Marmot, and The North Face (to name just a few).
EMPATHETIC: It must address a deeply relevant and meaningful need. Your positioning must genuinely have your customers’ interests at heart. Ironclad brands genuinely care about their customers and seek to serve them with authenticity.
EXAMPLE: Airbnb empathetically addresses a large and previously unserved desire. Based on a promise to “belong anywhere,” Airbnb marries two deep, human needs: the need to belong and the need to feel safe in parts of the world beyond our experience. The Airbnb promise is meaningful for guests, who get to experience a new place through the lens of a local, and hosts, who get to share their world with someone they’d otherwise never get to know.
OPTIMALLY DISTINCT: It must strike a balance between familiar and novel. Your brand positioning must be recognizable enough that your customer can easily grasp it, and yet new enough that it breaks through clutter and sparks intrigue. Familiarity gets you into the customer’s mind, while novelty attracts the customer’s attention.
EXAMPLE: Chobani yogurt blends the distinctness of Greek-style yogurt with the familiarity of mainstream American yogurt. Fage had made the mistake of being very different—an unintuitive-to-pronounce name (“Fah-jay”), large cartons, plain whole milk SKUs—and never broadly tapped Americans’ yogurt-eating. Mainstream American brands like Yoplait had become ho-hum, uninteresting—overly familiar. Chobani blended familiar (traditional American fruit flavors and single-size servings) with novel (Greek yogurt’s thick texture), growing it to be one of the largest in the yogurt category.
FUNCTIONAL AND EMOTIONAL: It must serve the customer on both functional and emotional levels. Your offering must be at the critical intersection of your customer’s heart and mind. If it’s only emotional, they might not believe it. If it’s only functional, they won’t bond with it or be loyal to it.
EXAMPLE: Etsy gets it just right by promising “something real from a real person”—an ideal intersection of functional and emotional. They bring the functional benefit of making it easy to find makers of what you need along with the emotional, soul-satisfying payoff of buying from a real artisan. It is functional enough to assuage the mind and emotional enough to capture the heart. In contrast, Microsoft Office is a brand that is overly functional—it is all about the product’s features and does nothing for your heart. And Jaguar is a brand that is too emotional—while the heart loves style and luxury, the mind can’t accept that it requires frequent repairs.
SHARP-EDGED: It must entail a single, sharp-edged promise. Your brand positioning must be simple and singular. It should be ridiculously clear to customers what you do and don’t promise. Focus on that specific benefit, with all you do and say supporting that single idea.
EXAMPLE: Let’s look at a few well-known car brands. When you say Volvo, I say safe. When you say Prius, I say fuel-efficient. When you say Jeep, I say fun. None of these brands overextend into being sporty, prestigious, or fast. It’s clear both what they do and what they don’t do. But when you say Buick, it doesn’t mean much. That’s a brand without sharp edges.
HAS TEETH: It must be demonstrably true. Your positioning must offer compelling, granular, concrete proof that it will deliver on its promise. It need not only be true, but demonstrably true. This helps customers believe it, trust it, and engage with it.
EXAMPLE: Plenty of insurance companies pitch a savings advantage. However, only Geico’s promise to save you money on car insurance is extremely specific, with numerical, relevant facts to back it up: “Fifteen minutes could save you 15 percent or more on car insurance.” Fifteen minutes is fast, but not so fast that it’s not believable. Fifteen percent is substantial, but does not sound like an overpromise. The matching of “15 minutes” with “15 percent” makes the promise memorably specific.
DELIVERS: You must deliver on your brand promise across everything you do, from big to small, from new customer to loyal customer—consistently. You don’t just nail the letter of the promise, but the spirit of the promise.
EXAMPLE: Zappos promises world-class customer service, and they deliver on that consistently and across all dimensions. They hire people for their customer service ethic. Their processes are set up to reward creative, above-and-beyond ways to delight customers. They will get your merchandise to you in 24 hours. They provide free shipping both ways. Even their boxes are a treat to open. They deliver excellent customer service in spades.
“For a brand to meet these criteria, leaders must make difficult choices and trade-offs,” says Pedersen. “It can feel scary to decide so boldly and shine a spotlight on what you have selected. Yet choosing is what separates good leaders from great leaders, what separates flash-in-the-pan businesses from the ones that endure for generations.”
Forging an Ironclad Brand: A Leader’s Guide (Lioncrest Publishing, April 2019, ISBN: 978-1-544-51386-7, $27.99)