Brand Marketing’s Double Bind: To Stand Out, Brands Must also Fit In.
At its core, brand strategy is all about highlighting the differences that define the unique value of an organization, its products, and its services. Yet branding is not only about being different. Branding also involves a degree of what we might call sameness: While striving for difference, brands must conform to norms that make them accessible and familiar to target audiences.
Consider Apple's iPhone. No doubt, the iPhone now represents a high watermark of disruptive technological design. The iPhone is, after all, much more than a traditional "phone." Yet Apple introduced the iPhone in terms of the familiar technology. The very name of the device speaks to the blend of difference and sameness: The effectively generic reference to the standard "phone" differentiated simply by the signature apple pre-fix "i" (which itself speaks to a range of connotations.)
As in the case of the iPhone, all brands must, on some level strike a balance between the new and the familiar, sameness and difference: While disruption requires a move toward differentiation, to remain accessible to audiences, brands must also make a move toward familiarity. Powerful brands are accessibly exotic: They present the new and unfamiliar in familiar, accessible terms. Negotiating these contrary demands is not easy. I hope this article helps.
First, a Very Brief Review of Some Key Points in Brand Strategy:
Brands play many roles: Certainly, an effective brand works on many levels. The following list is by no means exhaustive, but it provides some essentials:
- Awareness/Recognition: They offer awareness/recognition: “We exist, and offer this particular product.”
- Differentiation: Brands differentiate the unique qualities of a product or organization: “We exist and offer unique value that stands out in a particular way.”
- Values and Identification: Brands serve as sites of identification: “We understand the needs and values of our particular audience/market; for clients, commitment to our brand provides a means of demonstrating commitment to particular values.”
- Self-Expression: Brands also operate to serve customer needs for personal identification and expression: “This brand expresses a particular aspect of my identity.”
- Industry Authority: Brands must inspire trust as leaders in a particular industry.
Many readers will likely think of a number of other aspects critical to developing an impactful brand. This article may or may not touch on some of those issues. Branding itself is very much a cultural process; as such, brand strategies must adapt to nuances of context, as well as changes over time.
Most brand strategists will, however, agree that brands must answer the following questions:
- Does your brand relate to your target audience? Will they instantly "get it" without too much thought?
- Does your brand share the uniqueness of what you offer and why it's important?
- Does it reflect the brand promise that you are making to who you are targeting as well as to your internal audience?
- Does your brand clearly reflect the values that you want to represent as a customer?
Sameness in Branding: Consider some of the pressure points that pull brands into the realm of the same and familiar:
- Powerful brands communicate value in ways that are accessible, easy to recognize; in this sense, brands must speak in familiar terms.
- Marketers commit considerable resources to understanding their target audience, to speaking a common language, and cultivating deep identification with a brand. Our gut instinct as marketers is to go with what is working, because everything in the corporate rewards system is geared towards that: lack of risk appetite; the quest for short-term results; even performance incentives. The irony for brands of course is that the more you embrace what works for others, the less likely those ideas are going to work for you.
- The need to conform to industry “Best Practices,” coupled by the tendency to benchmarking goals in light of competitor brands also create pressures toward sameness.
Differentiation as the Core of Identity in Branding: While brands must be present value in recognizably familiar terms, the whole point of branding is to establish differences: A brand functions as the identity of an organization and its offering to consumers. And identity fundamentally depends on difference—things only have an identity by virtue of being differentiated from other things. Here are some ways to highlight these differences.
- The shift from features to worldviews: Brands have increasingly begun to fashion their products around their viewpoints rather than looking to drive preference around specific features. The goal is no longer to position brands in relation to function but rather to platform brands as promoters of a worldview, even a world change. Apple does not offer phones with the functionality of computers. Rather, Apple provides an opportunity to participate in an ideology based on the ability to “think different.”
- Can you think of your brands as an “ism”? In essence, brands no longer offer a unique value proposition; rather, they offer a unique ideology. The Greek suffix ‘ism” is often used to create nouns that refer to a particular set of principles or beliefs. Art movements, for instance, are often identified as distinct “isms”—cubism, expressionism, impressionism—these terms operate as points of differentiation, distinguishing the art of one period from what has come before through a complex combination of practices, values, tastes, innovations, and perspectives. Today, brands operate on very much the same terms: To differentiate a brand is to offer an outlook on the world, and a hope for the future, that drives everything the brand does.
- Authenticity: Make Sure Your Brand is a Window Not a Mask: At its core, all the talk about authentic branding really about making sure your products and services deliver on promised values.
- Identify with a unique sense of place or with a particular legacy—This may not be new advice, but it’s powerful. Still, authenticity is key here.
- Tell a unique story: When it comes to brand strategy, storytelling is not unique However, a compelling story is, inevitably, always unique—even if a story fits into a broader archetype, each story stands on its own. And every company has one.
- Aesthetics: Don’t estimate the power of beautiful, artful presentation—from product to package, the aesthetics of your offering shape how clients experience your brand.
The Accessible Exotic
As much as branding is built around being different, the work of brand strategy requires marketers also present the new in familiar an accessible terms. Let's call it the "accessible exotic" in branding: While brands must disrupt familiar conventions and expectations, brands must also speak in familiar terms. Consider the demands of branding in high-tech industries. Brands seeking to establish authority as leaders in a particular tech market must demonstrate expertise by speaking "the language of an industry." Speaking that language means conforming to certain norms of voice. In short, in order to effectively stand out, brands must know something about the norms that go along with fitting in.
Powerful Brands Must Know How to Talk like Everyone in the Room and Still Sound Different: This one can be a challenge. In this case, the tension emerges in the work of developing a brand voice: How do brands speak in a voice that at once demonstrates industry expertise while at the same time avoids sounding like a bunch of standardized jargon? How do brands prove they can speak the language of an industry while avoiding simply sounding like everyone else? In other words, how do brands at once fit in and stand out?
Speaking the Language of an Industry Requires More than Technical Knowledge
The tension is particularly challenging for brands in high-tech industries that must demonstrate mastery of often highly technical language to niche audiences of highly trained technical experts. The concern almost always involves the particular need to “speak the language of a particular industry.”
"Speaking the Language of an Industry"
I hear a lot about this concern--understandably so. Speaking the language of an industry requires more than expert command over relevant concepts. For that matter, understanding anything involves more than knowledge. It requires a feel for often unspoken dimensions of meaning. Demonstrating understanding of an industry, for instance, requires more than knowledge of the right vocabulary; rather, it requires familiarity with how to use terms—nuances of tone and style.
Developing an effectively distinct brand voice in contexts that demand expert knowledge of an “industry language” thus involve a delicate balancing act: Brands must speak in a voice that demonstrates expert understanding while avoiding over-used jargon and other industry conventions that can dilute the distinct character of a brand. And, like a family doctor, a brand voice must communicate as both an expert and as a humanized, familiar voice. In what follows, I look at 2 versions of a text in a high technical industry—water management—to explore writing strategies that negotiate the balance between industry expertise and brand voice. Both versions discuss the issues of water "taste and odor" and their relevance to consumer confidence. The first version presents information in more standard industry style; the second makes adjustments that telegraph a particular brand voice.
Version #1: “The Technical Text”: Speaking to Industry Experts in Purely Technical Terms
Taste and odor events are problematic for water utilities because most consumers evaluate water quality solely on the basis of aesthetic indicators. Most common taste and odor–causing compounds do not pose a threat to human health and thus are not subject to regulatory limits. Nevertheless, it is vital that water utilities have the capacity to remove these compounds when present in the source water to maintain high consumer confidence. Brand X water management provides these necessary tool and services.
Version #2: The Branded Text: Speaks to Industry Experts as well as a broader audience in a unique brand voice:
Those of you who work in the world of water utilities know all too well that success means much more than meeting regulation standards of water safety. After all, in addition to delivering safe and healthy drinking water, providers must also maintain the trust and confidence of customers. To that end, water must be more than safe; it must also meet preferred standards of taste.
The concern may seem obvious. Yet, the strict regulatory guidelines defined to ensure water remains safe to drink provide no guarantee that customers will find the experience particularly pleasant. Safe drinking water is not necessarily tasty, or even tolerable. In fact, sometimes it’s downright awful. Water that smells like rotten eggs, for instance, generally indicates higher levels of hydrogen sulfide in a given water supply. Hydrogen sulfide smells terrible; stirred in with water, and you’ve got yourself a tall glass of miserably terrible. Nevertheless, as bad as it may smell, that stink water is safe as asparagus. As unpleasant as they may be, those unwanted variations in the taste and smell of drinking water are almost always caused by nothing more than harmless, innocuous environmental factors that pose no threat to human health.
That said, when it comes to drinking water, there are many kinds of “good.” Delivering water that is safe to drink is not the same as delivering water customers will want to drink. And while generally harmless, unwanted variations in smell and taste still require investigation. To maintain vital customer trust, those working in water utilities need the be ability to identify and remove the elements that lead to uncertainties over water quality. Brand X provides the tools and services you need to maintain the trust and confidence of your clients.
Examining the Differences
While both of the above examples present the same content, they do so in considerably different ways. Let’s examine the differences:
Length: The industry text is significantly shorter in length. The Industry piece only presents the facts in the most direct way possible. But makes no attempts at a conversational engagement with the reader.
Narrative POV: The industry piece strictly adheres to a third-person objective voice commonly associated with scientific studies and technical manuals. On the other hand, the branded piece shifts between third and second person, occasionally addressing reader in the second person, as “those of you who work in the world of water utilities.” While often consider “presumptuous” or overly vague for formal writing, (who is you?) the second-person “you” can serve as a powerful way to identify with readers in niche audiences.
Diction: The diction, in keeping with the more scientific voice of the industry piece, speaks of experiences in de-personalized terms. For instance, while “taste and odor” refer to human senses, in this passage they are presented as “events” that operate as “aesthetic indicators” that inform how “consumers evaluate water quality.” While this diction has the virtue of scientific objectivity, as a brand voice, it can come off rather impersonal, even dehumanizing.
Formal or more Playful Tone: While the industry piece maintains a scientific and objective tone, the branded text employs conversational phrases such as “the concern may seem obvious” and “that said”—these phrases are more than moments of stylistic excess. More importantly, conversational phrases actively reach out to readers; they demonstrate awareness of and understanding for a readers’ point of view.
While the branded piece refers to professional issues that demonstrate understanding of audience concerns, it does so in casual language: “The strict regulatory guidelines defined to ensure water remains safe to drink provide no guarantee that customers will find the experience particularly pleasant. Safe drinking water is not necessarily tasty, or even tolerable.” Beyond references to “regulatory guidelines,” the brand voice speaks in a voice that hints at a wry, even understatedly ironic, familiarity with the “not particularly pleasant” details of the profession.
In short, the scientific piece adheres conveys a strictly formal professionalism that very effectively demonstrates industry expertise. However, this formalism risks sacrificing the opportunity to connect with audiences on a more human level. Brands can offset the technical formality of their voice by employing casual diction, conversational phrases and transitions, as well as ironically playful language.
Of course, when developing a brand voice, each organization must make choices about the extent to which they might engage readers in more casual and playful terms. Still, language of this kind, when balanced with technically informed industry insight, will speak to industry experts. More playful and casual language will also speak to those decision makers not necessarily engaged in more technical aspects of a business. More importantly, it will make your brand more memorably human.
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