GoodThinking the masonbaronet newsletter

Brand or bland: 
what's the difference?

To a consumer, there's nothing more frustrating than looking at two products and not being able to understand how they differ.


When we shop for products or services, we begin an involuntary process of comparison and evaluation. During that process, we look not for similarities among competing options, but for differences. In fact, we crave those differences—because they enable us to narrow our options and make better choices. This leads us to a critical principle:


If a business offers no meaningful difference by which a customer can make a decision, it forces the buyer to consider some other attribute—like price.


When the prospect’s attention moves away from benefits and fixates on the “next best thing,” he or she consciously or unconsciously tags the product or service as a commodity. Suddenly, any discussion about real or perceived value is drowned out by a rational, logical comparison of price. An opportunity is missed—and the implications are profound.


In short, failure to communicate a clear point of difference hurts businesses far beyond the cash register.


The solution is simple, but not easy. To avoid being seen as a commodity, a brand must become something much more daunting. It must be different.


Differentiation is the process and the act of identifying and communicating a brand’s unique value. Businesses that differentiate themselves in the marketplace give prospects meaningful criteria to help them make better decisions. In fact, a brand that is properly differentiated among its competition and positioned in the minds of its constituents will most likely become the only choice. Even better, differentiation can transform an attribute like price into a value-add. Translation: cha-ching.


But differentiation is hard. Sometimes, there’s just not that much difference among competing offerings. Water is water, right? Not exactly—because an innovative brand knows how to make water unique. A company can filter the water, add vitamins, design great packaging and give it a fancy name. Now, that same water can sell for five times more—because it has value. Because it’s unique.


Perhaps the biggest obstacle to differentiation is a little less tangible—though potentially more disturbing. It’s the failure to accept the notion that no one product or service is right for everyone. Unlike commodities, brands must focus on ideal customers—and align themselves with those loyal users at all costs. Businesses that happily serve anyone who walks in the door have no business strategies. Why? Because those businesses are never the right fit for 100 percent of those clients. And the longer they pretend to be “all things to all people,” the more they will be viewed by all people as “nothing special.”


Is your brand a commodity?

Businesses that want to compete and succeed must ask themselves some tough questions:

  • Does my company matter?
  • Would our customers care if we disappeared tomorrow?
  • Are our customers loyal—or would they switch based on something like price?
  • Do they come back because they want to—or because they have to?
  • Does the product or service add value to our customers’ lives?
  • Does everyone in the organization recognize the role they play in the total customer experience?
  • Do we even talk about “the total customer experience?”


Brands matter to customers only to the extent that they connect with emotional needs and desires. When they do that, customers become emotionally invested in the brand’s success.


In our next newsletter, we’ll prove our own value proposition by showing how powerful design—plus a lot of good thinking—can help brands differentiate, compete and prosper.

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