Recently, I was asked a great question by someone on social media who wanted to know, “What's the purpose of referring to companies as brands instead of companies?” The reason why that is such a great question is because most people outside of the marketing industry (understandably), usually do not identify the distinctions between a company, and a brand.
While it's pretty obvious what the definition of a company is, when it comes to branding—you'll often get many different definitions of what a brand actually is (even from branding experts).
Intrinsically, a brand is a set of promises that helps society create a shortcut to define the functions of a business, person, or thing. For example, you may love Snickers candy bars—but if you wanted to send a letter of appreciation to a candy company by the name of Snickers—you’d never find it. That’s because Snickers isn’t a company, it’s a brand owned by Mars, Incorporated.
And while a company could be considered successful—simply by being profitable. For a brand to be considered successful, or even better—known as one of the greats, it has to be perceived favorably by an audience.
Here’s eight things that the greatest brands do to attain and maintain favorability from their audience.
1. Articulate that they’re not for everyone
As an Adele fan, there’s plenty of lyrics from her songs that I adore. But some of my favorite lyrics from Adele are from her song “Rolling In The Deep,” where she belts out the line, “We could’ve had it all.”
Though that line may ring true when it comes to relationships—when it comes to branding, great brands understand that nothing could be further from the truth. You can’t have it all—therefore you must relinquish something.
The thing that you must relinquish in branding—is the thought that your brand could be appealing to everyone. Which is why great brands not only identify the types of people that they choose to cater to—they tell the world that they’re only seeking to serve those types of people.
When you think of the strongest brands in America—Harley-Davidson has to be one of the brands that come to mind. One of the things that make Harley-Davidson such a compelling brand is that you can easily visualize who the brand is and isn’t for whenever the brand comes to mind. That’s because Harley-Davidson has done an excellent job articulating exactly who the brand is and isn’t for through its copy and imagery.
If you’re anti-rebellious—you’d probably never purchase a Harley-Davidson motorcycle or any of the brand’s merchandise. And the good folks at Harley-Davidson would be just fine with that—because their brand isn’t for you.
2. Exude Differentiation
“Companies need to position themselves different than their competition. That means finding a point-of-differentiation unique and meaningful in their industry.” Says authors Jack Trout and Steve Rivkin, in their book Differentiate Or Die.
The greatest brands wear their point-of-differentiation like a badge of honor for everyone to see—as they should.
Today’s market is full of brands vying for the attention of various audiences. Which means that the only way for a brand to truly stand out from the crowd—it needs to be obviously different.
One way for a brand to exude its differentiation is by being the first in a category and owning it. An example of a great brand that has done just that—is the supermarket chain Whole Foods.
On their website, Whole Foods emphasizes the fact that they are the "First and only certified national grocer," which gives the brand a huge amount of credibility amongst its audience, because whenever a brand could factually make the claim of being first in any category—it exudes differentiation.
3. Embrace innovation
There comes a time when every brand must make a decision, adapt to the times—as uncomfortable as it may be. Or, avoid rocking the boat by staying put in its comfort zone.
But great brands opt for the alternative—by taking a leadership position and innovating their industry in a way that forces their competitors to either adapt—or, get left behind.
Which is exactly what happened in 2007 when Apple shook up the technology industry with its release of the iPhone.
Prior to the initial release of the iPhone in 2007, the Apple brand was already in a leadership position in the tech industry. Apple could’ve easily rested on its laurels and left well enough alone by focusing on simply dominating the PC category. Instead, the brand embraced innovation by revolutionizing the smartphone category.
As Apple Co-founder the late Steve Jobs said, “Innovation distinguishes between a leader and a follower.”
4. Place culture above products
Any brand that is a leader in its respective industry simply due to the fact that it has a superior product is on borrowed time. That’s because the brand’s only advantage is that it has a superior manufacturing advantage—which could be lost at any moment.
Instead, a far greater advantage, and one that cannot be easily replicated by technology—is to have a cultural advantage.
Great brands are cognizant of the fact that most products could eventually be duplicated in one way or another. But a brand’s cultural influence cannot.
For example, It wouldn’t be hard to fathom a competitor footwear brand creating a running shoe far superior to Nike’s. However, that footwear brand would embark on an improbable endeavor if it tried to cut into Nike’s market share in the running shoe category—due to the fact that Nike symbolizes culture, which is why its brand equity alone is worth more than any of its competitors.
5. Only expand if it makes sense
What’s the first thing that you think of whenever you hear the name Levi’s? If you share my sentiment, you probably think of a brand that specializes in selling denim jeans. In fact, Levi’s is the no.1 men’s and women’s denim jeans brand worldwide.
However, Levi’s isn’t just a strong brand because of its dominance in the denim jeans category. Levi’s is a strong brand because its managers mastered the art of practicality. In other words, the brand only does things that make sense as it pertains to the image of the brand.
For example, back in 1986, when executives at Levi Strauss & Co. wanted to expand into the emerging business casual clothing market—they were faced with a dilemma. Sacrifice possibly ruining the Levi’s brand image by adding business casual clothing to the line. Or, create a separate brand apart from Levi’s that specialized in business casual clothing.
Luckily, the execs at Levi Strauss & Co. made the best decision by creating a separate brand for business casual attire by the name of Dockers (you may have heard of it).
6. Serve as a beacon
Branding, like all of the other branches on the tree of marketing—is all about psychology. If you can understand and appeal to the mental characteristics and attitudes of your audience—you could do very well in any role as a marketing professional.
One thing that all great brand marketers and psychologists know is that people tend to like others that are similar to themselves—even more so when it comes to those discontent with societal norms.
Which is why great brands identify and appeal to those that share a particular belief or discontent of the status quo and position their brand to serve as a beacon that’ll draw those people in like a moth to a flame.
“A cult or brand needs to be a siren to those who are discontented with the status quo.” Says author Douglas Atkin, in his book The Culting Of Brands. “To do this well, it needs to identify the source of its potential franchise’s sense of separation. This feeling is not limited to the socially or psychologically damaged.”
Starbucks is one of the greatest brands in the world—not because it claims to have the best coffee, it’s because Starbucks serves as a beacon that magnetizes an audience that shares a certain mindset. While also providing them a place to gather with others like themselves.
7. Compete with their industry…not other brands (when they're on top)
Beyoncé Knowles is one of the most recognizable and successful entertainers the world has ever seen. One of the things that helped make Beyoncé—as a brand, so great is that she doesn’t compete with other brands. She only competes with industries as a whole.
For example, whenever an artist in any genre tries to challenge Beyoncé—she doesn’t acknowledge them at all. Instead, she crushes them by creating monumental moments that shake up the entire industry—moments that her contemporaries cannot come close to competing with.
By strategically ignoring their existence and not engaging those that try to challenge her—Beyoncé prevents any of them from ever boosting their status by claiming that she’s their rival. Which is one of the ways that she’s deservedly remained atop of the throne of pop culture for so long.
8. Deliver as expected
The NBA’s Golden State Warriors (my favorite basketball team) was recently ranked the 4th most valuable franchise in all of sports.
And although today the franchise is known as the gold standard (no pun intended) for how a professional sports franchise should operate—back in 2009, the brand was known as the total opposite. So much so that during the 2009 NBA draft, Stephen Curry was hoping that the Warriors wouldn't draft him so that he could fall to the New York Knicks, who had the next pick after the Warriors (I know it still hurts Knicks fans).
But a year later in 2010, a new ownership group led by Joe Lacob and Peter Guber—purchased the Golden State Warriors and things began to change instantly.
After purchasing the franchise—Lacob and Guber publicly promised fans that the organization would be run in a top-notch capacity. Lacob even gave out his personal email address so that he could receive and respond to feedback from Warriors fans.
Just over twelve years later, Lacob and Guber have helped deliver four NBA Finals championships—as well as a new world-class arena in San Francisco to Warriors fans.
Fans of the team now have an expectation of greatness from the current ownership group. And the Warriors, as a brand—has consistently delivered on those expectations. Which is why they are one of the greatest brands in professional sports.