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How Successful Brands Live Their Difference

We live in a conversation driven world. Even if your brand is not an active user of social media, your customers and potential customers are. This is revolutionizing the way brands have to think about themselves and how they choose to compete. In a conversation driven world, the real threat is not conversation itself, but commoditization. Unless customers have reason to talk, they won’t. And a brand that generates little or no conversation will be killed by one that does.

We live in a conversation driven world. Even if your brand is not an active user of social media, your customers and potential customers are. This is revolutionizing the way brands have to think about themselves and how they choose to compete.

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In a conversation driven world, the real threat is not conversation itself, but commoditization. Unless customers have reason to talk, they won’t. And a brand that generates little or no conversation will be killed by one that does.

The challenge is that the active commoditization of brands has been happening for years–the same McKinsey business strategies, the same technology platforms, the same customer service outsourcing, the same customer research data and the same Wall Street pressures, all combining to create less meaning and not more.

Fighting these forces of same will be extremely difficult, but absolutely necessary. There are many who feel that combining a commoditized offer with differentiated advertising will lead to achieving their ‘fair share’ of the market. They are wrong for two simple reasons:

  1. You can’t spend your way to success. No matter how big your advertising budget, or how much equity your brand already has, an undifferentiated offer will be found out through the power of online conversation.
  2. The number of brands consumers have to choose from is exploding exponentially. For example, in just the past five years, trademarks in the technology space have risen from just under 100,000 to just over 500,000.

But brands that live their difference do exist, and no surprise, they represent the kind of brands we all know and talk about most often. Brands like Apple, Amazon, Nike, or Whole Foods.

So next time you’re thinking about your brand, you may want to consider three of the traits that these brands all seem to have in common:

Long term consistency of purpose
Successful brands apply a long term sense of purpose, rather than an ever changing cycle of campaigns and positioning statements. This sense of purpose is what drives differentiation–it represents your unique reason to exist; the unique value that you bring and used properly ensures that over time everyone within that organization makes decisions that are consistent with this purpose.

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Innovation as a core competence
Within the frame of the purpose for the brand–the core value that the brand brings, successful brands place innovation at the heart of what they do. What uniquely separates these brands is how their innovations are always true to the purpose of their brand. Take Nike+ for example. This isn’t just an innovation that anyone could have delivered–it is absolutely tied to the Nike area of purpose around participation and competition.

Culture as decision making filter
When your purpose is clear, and consistent over time, one of the most powerful uses is as a driver of culture. For while your consumer may buy products, services or experiences, it is your people who decide what these should be. In the organizations that are delivering the kinds of brands we want to talk about–those few brands who create compelling experiences, it is clear that the decisions that lead to the experience, are very much focused on what is right for that brand. It is only when every employee can make that designation–whether a decision is right for the brand or not, that you will have the glue that you need.

Read more of Paul Worthington’s blog

Paul Worthington

Paul Worthington is head of Strategy for the New York office of Wolff Olins, a global brand and innovation consultancy. You can find both Paul (@pworthington) and Wolff Olins (@wolffolins) on Twitter.

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