Think Excellence, Not Difference: the most sustainable brand-building strategy

Choose a branding strategy of  excellence ,  not difference. You will own a long-term, sustainable position.

Choose a branding strategy of excellence,  not difference. You will own a long-term, sustainable position.

I recently had the honor of presenting my core philosophy of “Think Excellence, Not Difference” at the Kansas City Area Development Council’s (KCADC) Full Council Investor Briefing.

Excellence is the most sustainable branding strategy. Don't focus on how you are different from your competition. Tell your story about how you are the best choice for your customers. 

Think Excellence, Not Difference

The marketplace is crowded and your customers constantly encounter opportunities to choose one of your competitors. In the past, companies gained customer share by focusing on differentiating their products and services.

That is unsustainable.

Today, your customers make buying decisions based on what’s best for them, not on how different the choices are from each other.

For example, customers don’t pick UPS delivery service because it has brown trucks that no one else does. They pick UPS because of what brown can do for them.

Similarly, customers don’t choose and stay with Allstate Insurance because it offers different rates than competitors. They stay with Allstate because they know they’re in good hands.

Notice that neither company focuses on how their products stand out from their competition. Their claim isn’t uniqueness or differentiation; they focus on being the best choice for each customer.

So why do marketers foolishly spend so much time focusing on the differences of us versus them? For years, companies have held day-long strategy sessions to distinguish their “point of difference” — a position around which they build entire strategic marketing plans.

Different isn’t better, different is just different

If you differentiate and it doesn't work, well, that's a fail.  And if you differentiate and it works, you can always count on your competition encroaching on your position.

Smart leaders have to reinvent the rules of competition to meet consumers’ expectations and desire for the best product or service available. You must uncover what those expectations and desires are, what they mean to your company, and then create a plan to deliver excellence for your customers.

Defining excellence is step one

Moving toward a position of excellence doesn’t require a complete overhaul of your company. You are already doing something with excellence. You just have to figure out how to fully capture and communicate your excellence.

According to Funk & Wagnalls Standard Dictionary, excellence means “being of the very best quality; exceptionally good.” Webster’s Revised Unabridged Dictionary puts it this way, “surpassing others in some good quality or the sum of qualities; of great worth.”

Defining your excellence requires realizing your brand is not what you say it is, but what your customers believe it to be.

Your brand perception lives in the six inches between the ears of the people who matter most to you

Exploring how your customers define excellence is the key place to start. In doing so, you become the beneficiary of new ideas on ways to stay innovative, valued and excellent in your customers’ minds. Remember, your customers’ opinions are the only ones that really matter.

Your authentic brand comes to life in how customers think about you and talk about you to their colleagues and friends. Each individual, each customer, knows his or her own definition of excellence.

To determine how their customers define excellence, savvy professionals start by asking their customers the “Three Magic Questions,” created by Barnett Helzberg, founder of HEMP. These questions are simple, yet profound and revealing:

  • What are we doing that you like?
  • What are we doing that you don't like?
  • What do you wish we were doing that we're not?

Take an opportunity to meet with your customers face-to-face and ask for immediate, top-of-mind feedback. The conversation itself makes your customers feel appreciated and respected—the basis of any good relationship.

They will provide honest and substantive information. They will provide you with their definition of excellence. All you have to do is actively listen to learn what you’re doing right, what you can do better, and what you can add to provide additional value to customers.

Living excellence

Armed with new insights, you now build upon your position of excellence. This includes everything from developing new programs to retraining your staff. You may need to make only minor adjustments, or you may undergo complete operational shifts, all depending on your customers' definition of your excellence. With this new position as your base, develop key messages that clearly and simply embody your company and its services.

The positioning of both UPS and Allstate are sustainable "messages of excellence." Both are aware their services are similar to their competitors. But they strive to achieve excellence in a meaningful way their customers desire.

That's what makes their brand positioning so successful and sustainable. At Morningstar Communications we use, "Clarify. Connect. Change." It speaks to how our clients define our excellence, and it resonates.

implement and orchestrate Proactive integrated communications

The next step in your brand-building is to communicate your new message of excellence consistently, methodically and effectively. Your message of excellence becomes the DNA of your story.

You’ve already defined what makes your organization excellent, so you have your key message(s). Remember, this is not what makes you different.

Now, you’re ready to infuse that excellence in every form of communication to each key audience. And if you’re like most companies, you have several different, but key audiences, including employees, customers, prospects, and community and industry leaders.

To ensure you’re consistent with your excellence message, perform an “integrated marketing communications audit,” which helps to review all the various communication tools in use. Look at direct mail pieces, website copy, marketing collateral, presentation and sales materials, RFP responses, social media and advertising.

Do they all look, feel and sound the same? Do they all appear to come from the same company? And finally, do they all efficiently communicate your message of excellence?

Ensure you achieve this level of consistency for your brand and you’ll see that you’re building your brand identity, allowing key people to recognize, remember and relay your message.

Soon, you’ll find your message of excellence resonating with your audience. They respond, not because you created an arbitrary definition of what makes you different, but because you provided them with clarity of why they chose you.

And when it’s all said and done, by focusing on excellence you did an amazing thing. You created a new point of distinction, one that actually matters to those who matter most to you—your customers.

Own your authentic position of excellence, and thrive for the long term.