Successful brands break rules that have been the foundation of marketing dogma. Instead, they build on conceptual themes that are bigger and broader than a set of graphic elements; they are supported by ideas that explore the common ground between the brand and our emotions.

Marketers often struggle to break away from expected solutions for their category, yet time and again, they succumb to five major pitfalls that I call the paradoxes of branding.

The Paradox of Conformity: Companies want to be remembered by consumers; they want to stand out for their differences. Yet, time and time again, they slip into the use of language and imagery that represents their industry’s clichés.

The Paradox of Authenticity: Taking on a difficult social issue to brand a company can be successful when the product and cause align. When they don’t, and the brand is issue-washing, the result can be damaging. Too often, what’s passed off as authentic is fake—and customers can spot the deception.

The Paradox of Focus: Businesses the world over try to appeal to a wide audience, holding the idea that a broad offering results in greater revenue. Yet the opposite often occurs and results in commoditization. Companies that seek to be everything to every customer wind up being little to anybody.

The Paradox of Expertise: Professional service companies are often the worst at defining the competitive differences their expertise offers, and often make vague statements that belittle their true value. The experts fear declaring their expertise.

The Paradox of Risk: Companies avoid risk in all facets of business, from safety to product development to communication. And yet marketing demands a certain amount of risk: the willingness to differentiate and to plant your marketing flag on those differences. When you avoid risk, you avoid reward.

The consistent characteristic among highly successful brands is confident creativity. These are brands that don’t conform to what everyone else is doing, they speak authentically, they hold their focus, emphasize their expertise and are willing to take risks. This fundamental confidence gives them an enviable ability to anticipate and respond to today’s media environment and gain the attention of fragmented audiences and a culture that has little incentive to notice.

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