Bad news: The descriptive terms you use to describe your competitive differentiation are cliché and forgettable. Good news: By asking yourself some tough questions, you can differentiate yourself and refocus your business model.
A quick spin around LinkedIn proves it: Everyone is a "good communicator" or a "hard worker"; "creative thinkers" and "results-oriented consultants" are a dime a dozen. And to see the number of professionals who claim they are "passionate," "inspired," or "committed" to their field or role, you would think the entire workforce spent everyday joyfully twirling around a mountaintop a la Julie Andrews.
It’s hard to truly establish competitive differentiation when you share the same brand descriptors as a thousand of your closest competitors. But there's hope for your generic professional brand: Those very same overused terms can be as a starting point for developing a deeper, more accurate, and more memorable brand differentiation.
Why Personal Brand Descriptors Matter
If I asked you to describe Apple in two or three terms, you would likely be able to respond fairly quickly with something like, "innovative, cool, and expensive."
However, if I asked you to describe your neighbor down the hall, the one whose dog yip yips all day, in two or three terms, I am willing to bet you would also be able to respond fairly quickly (maybe with "annoying, inconsiderate, and deaf").
These terms you are responding with are essentially brand descriptors: the two or three terms or phrases that are affixed to just about everything we encounter, from major corporations to little old ladies. We usually conclude them quickly, and once we’ve tagged a person, place, or thing with these terms it is a herculean feat to change them.
From an evolutionary capacity, this quick assessment makes perfect sense. Dr. John Dovidio, a professor in Yale’s psychology department, explained on an episode of 20/20 that as a survival mechanism, "we categorize people automatically, unconsciously, and immediately."When it comes to survival, this makes sense; the faster we can assess what’s in front of us, whether it’s a bear or a donut or a media conglomerate, the faster we can discern if it’s a threat. But when it comes to business, this means we have not only a very small window of time but also a very small amount of attention in which to establish our brands. Unless we can make an impact with our two to three descriptors, that’s all the mental real estate we will ever own in the mind of the market.
This fact makes brand descriptors among the top—if not the top— branding strategy all professionals should be focusing on. Origin stories are potentially motivational, and well-crafted product and service copy is important. But if your brand communicates generic, cliché, and unmemorable descriptors, the prospect will likely never take the time to read or listen to even the most eloquent testimonial.
How to Take Descriptors to the Next Level
For professionals who have put some thought into their brand already, upgrading brand descriptors and getting them to the next level of impact is a matter of challenging themselves with the right kinds of questions:
Start by reflecting on your business, your personality as a professional, and your desired brand. What are the two to three descriptors you use to introduce yourself or pitch your prospects? What are the descriptors you use in your elevator speech?
Ask yourself how common, generic, or cliché those terms are, especially for someone in your field. This is probably the most difficult part of the process, because it is very easy to justify, rationalize, and defend. Unlike our market, we know our own origin stories. We know exactly what our hard word produces, which makes "hard worker" seem perfectly fitting, even if it's cliché, because unlike other people who use that term, we really embody it. Honestly assessing the "forgettable factor" of our professional presentation is uncomfortable and just plain hard; this is why you should enlist a trusted peer, client, or friend to help if necessary.
Utilize a "why chain" for each term to tease out a better option. "Why chains" call upon us to channel our inner 4-year-old: Start with a statement about yourself as a professional using one of your current descriptors, like "I am an excellent communicator," and then ask yourself "Why?" Why are you an excellent communicator? You might respond with, "Because I write concisely and clearly." Then you ask yourself, "Why?" And then you respond, and then you ask again. A "why chain" is an excellent tool to help you drill down a generic descriptor to a more original term, and also help you to personalize it. You aren’t just finding a new way of saying "excellent communicator," you are finding a way to describe your specific way of communicating.
Revising your brand descriptors can do more than just up your competitive differentiation: They can help you refocus your entire business model. Jerry Grodesky, managing broker at Farm and Lake Houses Real Estate Inc., realized his brand descriptors were generic as he competed against myriad other traditional brokers in the Chicago area. As he examined his brand, Jerry realized "I was tired of the rat race and wanted to find a more peaceful quality of life." That realization inspired Jerry’s brand descriptor upgrade and the refocus his business model from "real estate broker" to "first and only specialist for farms and lake houses in Illinois." Clients now seek him out for his specialty, often driving several hours to do so.
Deliver On the Promise
But drilling down the descriptors is just part of the battle against cliché brands: Once you choose the descriptors you want people to associate with your brand, you need to examine your actions to make sure they are reinforcing and communicating them. Not walking the walk after you’ve figured out the talk will get you nowhere at best, and further compromise your success at worst.
This is another place where getting an outside opinion can be invaluable: Ask a peer, client, or friend if your brand currently exudes these new descriptors, and if not what one or two things they would like to see from you to do so. My mentor, Frank DuMar at Cleaver Company, taught me the value of being vulnerable enough to ask for feedback, and I am continually surprised at the positive results it produces.
So the bad news is your professional brand is cliché. But now the good news is your eyes are open, and you have a game plan for not only deepening your differentiation but also keeping it fresh.
[Image: Flickr user Angela Mabray]