Be Unique Even If Your Offering Isn't

Small business owners reveal how they stood out among a sea of competitors with similar products. The answer may surprise you

Written by David Kincaid

Let’s face it. Although you run a good company, you haven’t shaken up your sector. You’re not Apple, which brought the iPod/iPad/iPhone trifecta to market; you’re not Cirque du Soleil, which reinvented the very idea of a circus; and you’re not Lululemon, which was the first to popularize yoga wear with innovative fabric and savvy design that wasn’t otherwise available.

Perhaps you’ve founded a large parts manufacturer. Maybe you run a string of successful restaurants. Or possibly you’ve developed intuitive software that helps businesses run better. Whatever your product or service offering, you know that it creates a lot of value for your consumers and customers—because they tell you that. You work hard every day to outthink and outwork your toughest competitors.

Yet the hard truth is that, to those whom you’d like to turn into customers but have never done business with you, what you offer seems pretty much the same as what your rivals are selling. And, as much as we’d all like to think that potential clients see our own company as clearly different, for most businesses that’s simply not the case.

So how do you succeed in a market that perceives your offering as the same as your competitors? How do you win in a sea of sameness?

We recently sat them down with some of the most successful business leaders in similarly commoditized businesses and asked them this tough but critical question: How do you win in undifferentiated businesses like trucking (see my previous column below for more about this), home water heater sales and service, and back-office process technology?

Their answer may surprise you. Their secret, they said, was brand.

Read: Don’t Settle For Being “Me Too”

But not “brand” as many executives define that term. “[It’s] not about the logo or the colours or the look, it was about how we wanted to run the business,” said Pamela Griffith-Jones, former vp, guest and terminal services at the Greater Toronto Airports Authority. Carrie Russel, chief marketing officer at D+H, a leading provider of technology and managed services to the North American financial services industry, backed this up by explaining that, “Brand€¦is more than just a component of marketing€¦ It’s really about your business strategy and your choices; if you identify what your key differentiators are, your brand holds that promise. Then you can operationalize it, pushing it down into the ends of the businesses.” And Mike McCarron, former managing partner of award-winning freight and logistics provider MSM Transportation, said that, “When you start applying branding best practices to a business that’s already so price-driven, you can get real differentiation and a much better engaged margin.”

So how, exactly, have these business leaders used brand to beat the competition and reach their goals in these “unbrandable” businesses? From their discussion, we found a variety of insights that can be grouped into five key themes. And executives at any company, from a one-person consultancy to a 250-person manufacturer, can use these themes as a map to guide their firms to profitable growth:

  • Recognize that brands create sustainable competitive advantage and are worth the investment. When used to guide and align all aspects of an organization to consistently keep its promise, brand becomes that elusive element especially critical to “unbrandable” categories—a source of differentiation and long-term sustainable advantage that can be distinct from the actual product or service being offered.
  • Apply and manage brand internally and externally. Traditionally, brand has only been managed with external stakeholders (customers and consumers) in mind, often with inconsistent results. Yet without a workforce whose behaviour is guided by those same principles, it’s nearly impossible to ensure a consistent customer experience across all touch points. Your brand must be developed and managed with both stakeholder groups in mind to ensure long-term profitable growth.
  • Actively manage time horizon expectations because brands are built by persistent consistency over the long term. Brands demand time, effort, and investment to build. It is difficult and time-consuming to not only define the brand in the first place, but then to integrate, align and manage the internal capabilities of the whole organization to deliver on it. A long-term view, consistent management and ROI-based performance measurement are vital.

Read: More from business leaders who leveraged their brands to stand out in commoditized industries

  • Get buy-in from the top—brands must be owned by the C-suite. Brand is a system that guides not just what a company sells but also how that company should be run. Only the C-suite has that overarching perspective and accountability to tie each department and function together to create a cohesive whole. This is not a “job” for the marketing department.
  • Treat brands as underleveraged assets that hold the key to creating greater enterprise value. Many leading executives are still unaware, or unconvinced, of the power of brand to drive profitable growth and ROI. As a result, the financial value of that asset will remain hidden and inaccessible. However, once brand is both recognized and managed as a true “company asset,” it can become a significant source of enterprise and shareholder value.

Using these five themes, you can successfully sail through the sea of sameness to create competitive advantage and reach the shores of success.

David Kincaid has been a leader of branded businesses for 35 years and is now managing partner and CEO of LEVEL5 Strategy Group, a Toronto-based firm dedicated to driving profitable growth for its clients through the power of their brand. LEVEL5 was on the 2010 and 2011 PROFIT 200 rankings of Canada’s Fastest-Growing Companies.

More columns by David Kincaid

Originally appeared on PROFITguide.com