Successful brands break rules that have been the foundation of marketing dogma. Instead of just following what they’ve been taught or seen work successfully elsewhere, they build on conceptual themes that are bigger and broader than a set of graphic elements. These brands 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. Whether they default to tired design clichés or attempt to be all things to all people, these marketers sell themselves (and their brands) short. Time and again, they succumb to five major pitfalls that I call the paradoxes of branding.
The 5 Paradoxes of Branding—and How to Outsmart Them
The Paradox of Conformity
Companies want to be remembered by consumers. They want to stand out for their differences. Yet all too often they slip into the use of language and imagery that represents their industry’s clichés.
This paradox can be clearly seen in the world of consumer goods startups with what Ben Schott calls “the blanding blueprint.” Companies like Allbirds, Casper and Quip all seek to disrupt the respective markets they enter. Yet these startups have inadvertently adopted many of the same design choices, from geometric fonts to soft color palettes and low-key ironic copy. In the end, these “breakout” brands all start to look and sound the same.
It makes sense. Companies, like the people who run them, have an incredible desire to fit in—even when they are trying to position themselves as nonconformists. In addition, less established companies often adopt their industry’s design conventions to make their brand look like it deserves a seat at the table. But blending in never leads to standing out. It takes real bravery to put a stake in the ground and commit to building a brand in uncharted design territory.
To do that, you’ll need to tackle several challenges. The first is to refine and elevate your company’s authentic differentiating factor. And the second is to perform a brand assessment within your industry. Looking at all of your major competitors’ brands in a group will quickly reveal your industry clichés, whether they are colors, type choices or images. Now, look for opportunities to make intentional design choices that take your brand out of your industry “safe zone.”
As long as you make sure all of your design choices ladder up to your brand story and positioning, you can break the mold with gusto.
The Paradox of Authenticity
Today’s consumers are drawn to authenticity. And brands are more than happy to play the role, whether they align themselves with a social issue or a particular way of doing business. But if the claims you make about your brand aren’t real—if you try to pass off as authentic what is actually fake—your customers will soon spot the deception.
For example, brands like Toms and Warby Parker have built empires by pairing their products with aligned and authentic social issues. Compare that with Facebook, which has rightly come under fire for a number of concerns, including COO Sheryl Sandberg’s advice to women to “lean in.” As Scott Galloway put it in his book The Four: The Hidden DNA of Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google, “Sandberg told women to ‘lean in’ because she meant it, but she also had to register the irony of her message of female empowerment set against a company that emerged from a site originally designed to rank the attractiveness of Harvard undergraduates, much less a firm destroying tens of thousands of jobs in an industry that hires a relatively high number of female employees: media and communications.”
The best way to avoid the authenticity trap? Make sure your brand story is based on the qualities that truly make your organization so unique—not aspirational goals or false promises.
The Paradox of Focus
Businesses the world over try to appeal to a wide audience. They do so because they believe that a broad offering results in greater revenue. Yet so often, the opposite is what actually occurs. The result? Commoditization. Companies that seek to be everything to every customer wind up being little to anybody.
Once you accept that you can’t do it all, you can give yourself permission to hone in on a more narrow focus. Your sharpened positioning should ideally represent the sweet spot between your expertise and your customers’ needs. At first, the idea of narrowing your focus may seem scary. After all, saying “yes” to one area of expertise or vertical means saying “no” to many other ones. Won’t that mean lost opportunity rather than increased business?
The answer, paradoxically, is no. After all, small businesses rarely become big businesses without filling a specific need or niche.
For proof, consider Peloton. This home fitness brand disrupted the entire fitness industry by focusing on a single piece of equipment: a stationary bike outfitted with a screen that enables customers to take live spin classes from the privacy of their home. As they created a sense of community around the Peloton experience, the brand quickly developed a loyal following.
Over the years, Peloton has added a treadmill and augmented their content with additional workouts, like yoga and bootcamps. By focusing on pairing home exercise with a global community of athletes, they landed on just the right positioning—a narrow focus that paradoxically laid the foundation for enviable growth. As you might expect, their business model has only benefited from the coronavirus pandemic. But even without a deadly virus, their willingness to carve out and commit to a niche is what laid the foundation for their success.
The Paradox of Expertise
Professional service companies are often the worst at defining the competitive differences their expertise offers. These firms tend to make vague statements that resist elevating their core competencies. They do this because (as with the paradox of focus) they don’t want to risk losing jobs outside those areas.
Once you commit to your positioning, it’s time to take a deep breath and own it. You must decide to get specific about what you do best—and who you serve. Do that, and you’ll start to sell on your strengths rather than your weaknesses.
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 also avoid reward.
When building your brand, you must commit to taking calculated risks. Depending on your industry and business objectives (are you disrupting or defending market share?), that may mean more or less risk. But the level of risk can’t be zero, or you won’t make any impression at all.
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, they emphasize their expertise and they 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.