A brand strategy is a statement of what makes you not only compelling to customers, but truly different from their alternative options.
To identify the brand positioning that makes you different, you first need to decide: different versus what? What is the customer’s frame of reference for your brand? What do you need to be different from? This sounds simple, but most people get lazy at this step. They merely name their direct competitors – those most visible in their space – and consider these the competitive frame of reference.
Although that is sometimes right, usually the most fruitful frame of reference is less obvious. Your target customers likely compare you with a myriad of competitors and substitutes and workarounds, including doing nothing. Your task is to determine which comparison is most relevant. From what competitive alternative do you source the most of your revenue and profit?
The trick to identifying your true frame of reference is to be customer-centric, rather than you-centric.
Here are five angles to discern your most fruitful competitive frame of reference:
Consider your target customers’ budgets. Where in their budgets will they get the money to pay for your offering? How will they justify this purchase, either literally or figuratively? If your offering costs $100, what will they not spend money on so that they can afford your $100 offering?
When I weighed buying new skis for my kids, I had to use money I might have spent on other recreational gear. I would forego new tennis rackets and lacrosse sticks to make room in the budget for skis. So, my frame of reference was “recreational gear.” A ski brand may want to position versus recreational gear, rather than versus other ski brands.
Consider how customers spend their time. What will they not spend time on because they’ll be spending time on your offering?
When I started taking barre classes at my barre studio, I reduced the number of yoga classes I was taking, because I have finite time for such studio exercise classes. My barre studio was competing more with my yoga studio than it was competing with other barre studios. When developing their brand strategy, they might want to identify what makes them compelling and different from yoga, rather than from other barre offerings.
Consider your customers’ consumption habits. When it comes time to use your offering, what will they not be using as a result of using your offering?
After my team launched the Clorox Bleach Pen, we learned that among our customers, 20% used it instead of regular bleach, and another 20% used it instead of other topical stain removers, such as Spray n Wash and Shout. But a full 60% used the Clorox Bleach Pen instead of tolerating stains and living with stains on their clothes. The primary frame of reference was not other stain removers. Rather, we were mostly competing with “tolerating stained clothing.” We benefited from positioning ourselves against the behavior of tolerating stained clothing, rather than against our direct category.
Consider the workarounds available to your target customers. What workaround solutions do prospective customers currently employ because they don’t have your offering?
Before I purchased my ergonomic computer monitor ledge that lifts my monitor to neck height, I had been boosting my monitor with a stack of books. This worked reasonably well, but looked shoddy. An ergonomic ledge vying for my purchase needed not only to lift to the correct height, because the competitive workaround behavior of “stacked books” accomplishes this as well. The ledge needed to lift the monitor and bring elegance back to my desk.
Consider the Google search term or the word-of-mouth phrase customers use when talking about your business. What do people type into the Google search bar that leads them to you? If a friend referred to your business, how would they describe it?
There is a museum in Seattle we love called the Museum of Pop Culture (“MoPop”). If MoPop were defining their brand strategy, they might lazily describe their competitive frame of reference as “other museums in Seattle.” But when people visit us from out of town and are looking for things to do, we do not usually recommend other museums. But we do suggest MoPop, in addition to other favorite activities that include walks around Green Lake and sipping coffee at Pike Place Market. MoPop is competing with other quintessential Seattle activities, not with other museums. And that means they need to be different and compelling versus these activities, rather than versus other museums.
The fundamental principle when choosing the frame of reference is to be customer-centric, rather than you-centric. When identifying what you compete with, ensure that you are doing so from the point of view of your customer. Only then can you win them.
Lindsay is a Brand Strategist and Founder of Ironclad Brand Strategy, which builds brands using an exacting and analytic method. Her background as a P&L owner at Clorox fostered a deep appreciation for the executive charge: to create sustainable value. Ironclad advises companies from burgeoning startups to national corporations, including Zulily, IMDb, T-Mobile and Starbucks. Lindsay holds an MBA in Business from the University of California Berkeley, Haas School of Business.