Is branding the “art of differentiation”?
That’s sort of the adolescent way of looking at it. It makes me imagine a teenager who thinks “I want to be different — I want to buck the status quo” and then does whatever it takes to stand out. Outlandish clothing. Over-the-top hairstyle. Maybe even getting into trouble.
They don’t care how they do it as long as they’re not perceived as “one of the masses.”
The motivation to “be different” is misguided because it’s not a matter of attainment but of avoidance. And avoidance is dangerously ambiguous.
What I mean is that there are a million ways to not do something. Not all of them are wise alternatives.
So I see a lot of people coming face-to-face with this term “differentiation” and completely misunderstanding it in this way. In doing so, they cast a shadow over why being different even matters to your business.
The truth is that being different doesn’t matter. Uniqueness is not innately valuable. Commonality is valuable — and differentiation is how you create enough contrast for your brand to shine through.
Let’s toss all standing notions of “being different” and reframe our ideas about branding and differentiation right now. The new paradigm is as follows:
- Branding is about connecting with people.
- Differentiation is the art of connecting with the right people for your growth strategy.
Differentiation can be scary.
Differentiation embraces and compels your target market segment. At the same time it often excludes everyone else. Yes, meaningful differentiation polarizes. It distances you from part of your market — which is why so many people are afraid to do it.
But the exclusion is not the part that matters. You don’t care about the people you’re leaving out. They’re not your customers as defined by your (hopefully) well thought-out and researched growth strategy.
The inclusion is what matters.
Finding the common ground and offering the appropriate message to the correct segment is a million times more powerful than trying — and inevitably failing — to make everyone happy.
I’ve always found Planet Fitness gyms to be a great example of this. Their branding is all about being the gym/healthclub for the common person. Their messaging includes phrases like “judgement-free” and they actively make fun of “lunks” and hardcore bodybuilders. They even have an alarm on the wall that sounds when someone clangs their weights, grunts too loud, or acts like a muscle head.
The result? “Lunks” generally get embarrassed or angry, leave, and join a different gym.
Yes, Planet Fitness is actively shaming people that are not their target consumer to make things better for those who are.
This is commitment. This is a brand!
And guess what? Planet Fitness is constantly being recognized for their success. They’re ranked the fastest growing gym franchise in the world, and Franchise Times called them the #1 Smartest-Growing Franchise Brand. Do you think they give a damn about the small segment of the market they’re pushing out in order to build that amazing brand? Hell no.
There are good reasons why I’m always saying that marketing is not for the faint-hearted. You cannot be a coward and be a good marketer. You have to be able to take measured action that has an actual impact on the business. You have to calculate risks and make hard choices. Excluding part of the market is often one of them, but it pays dividends.
Tip-toeing around and playing it safe is a waste of everyone’s time and money — just ask anyone who’s worked with an agency that runs the same playbook over and over again, and the same painfully “beige” campaigns and messaging client after client. That kind of thing is busy work. It accomplishes nothing in the long run.
If you want to “move the needles”, you have to move your audience first.