Branding. It’s an overused and mostly misunderstood term — and it’s the fuel of marketing communications. It’s not just your logo or website, but the idea of who you are in the minds of your audience. It is an essence — part culture, part message, part visuals, part how you show up in the world — but it’s really mostly about perception.

The current world we live in is the 24-hour news cycle universe (or “Twitterverse”), with as many personal as cause-related and business messages trying to break through the cacophony. This is where branding — your voice, essence, perception — becomes important. How can your brand stand out?

Everyone involved in the brand development process brings their own inclinations and biases into the process, which often includes the idea that their brand needs to be better than the competition. And while the competition can and should inform you initially, part of your branding problem lies in these comparisons and being “better than.”

As a business, it’s futile to shout “good, better, best.” Stop, take a breath, and resist the urge to claim superiority.

Like Steve Jobs said, “You can’t look at the competition and say you’re going to do it better; you have to look at the competition and say you’re going to do it differently.”

Choose different. It’s better.

Moving Beyond Comparison

Your positioning needs to move beyond the common. While it should explain what you do and whom you serve, the real art of positioning is based on unique differentiation, relevance and the ability to focus narrowly.

Many of us struggle to clearly define our organizations in a distinctive and relevant way. Often, our attempts to be more service-oriented or to have greater reach actually weakens a positioning strategy. Becoming too many things to too many types of customers creates irrelevance.

While your core values are critical to how you run your business, to your brand internally and when working with customers, they are not necessarily differentiators.

Quality, excellence, service, integrity, responsiveness, dependability — all are great words and values, but none are differentiators. These are traits any of your competitors could claim. And the idea here is to be different, but in a way that is highly relevant to your audience and that could create competitive advantage. It’s definitely not easy.

Is Your Brand Diluted?

Brand dilution is not uncommon for small and mid-sized businesses as they start out and begin to grow. Casting the net wide is the fall-back reaction to bringing in the sales; but while it may address some short-term concerns, in the long run, this unfocused positioning is confusing to customers, staff and stakeholders, and is the starting point for an identity crisis — at least a brand identity crisis.

Competing on being “better” or “best” is a losing battle. Choose instead to be different. Different gets you noticed. Different, with relevance, gets you noticed by the right people and prospects.

What does it mean to be meaningfully different?

While it’s great to understand the competitive landscape, businesses need to use this information to break away from the norm. Become laser-focused in your positioning.

Narrow the Focus

Consider what customer, approach or cause you know more about than anyone else in your space. What if you let go of marketing to the “broader audience?”

In a culture in which we have more than we could ever want or need, and in a business landscape where companies seem to be running a race to nowhere, what does it mean to be meaningfully different? Different in a way that makes a difference?

Sometimes it means saying no to certain services or potential clients when everyone else is saying yes. It might mean going small when every else is going big. It might mean offering or doing less (narrow focus) when everyone is doing more. Zig when others zag (This concept was introduced by brand expert Marty Neumeier, author of The Brand Gap and Zag: The Number One Strategy of High-Performance Brands).

Disruption is a buzzword of late. Difference can mean disruption — but watch what you promise. The thing about branding and brand reinvention is that there are many possibilities, but your claims need to reflect who you really are and should be authenticated and supported by your website, your employees, your culture, your process. Don’t make the claim unless you truly are doing things differently.

Start by really getting to the core of your business. Set the vision. Define or clarify your values and what sets you apart. Move beyond comparison and determine the distinctions, variations, permutations — the unprecedented. How are you delighting your customers? What do your ideal customers value most? Decide not just what you’ll add, but what you might let go of.

It’s a brave new world. Be bold.

Wendy Baird is president of Insight180 Brand Consulting & Design, recently displaced and happily re-located in historic Ellicott City. She can be reached at 410-203-0777 or [email protected].