Required Reading: Brand Differentiation Is the Best 'Brand Aid'

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When a company's brand image is hurting, it's tempting to make obvious, easy changes. But updating a logo or slogan isn't always enough. Instead, brand revitalization requires recognizing what makes the brand unique and pinpointing how it can be differentiated from the competition, Brad VanAuken, author of Brand Aid: A Quick Reference Guide to Solving Your Branding Problems and Strengthening Your Market Position, says. Now in its second edition, VanAuken's book looks at the key factors that drive brand differentiation both online and off. The author shared some insights with Associate Editor Maria Minsker.

CRM: Your book is centered on the concept of brand differentiation. Can you explain what you mean by that?

Brad VanAuken: I've worked with over 160 brands across different industries, and one of the biggest problems I see is when the leadership team thinks of the brand as just a name. They don't think of it as a relevant personification of a product or service that creates an emotional connection. That's a huge error. For example, sometimes companies grow so big that they're just interested in acquisitions, and they become about everything and nothing at the same time. It used to be that people differentiated brands based on attributes and functions, but those can easily be replicated and reverse engineered, so these things that companies think make them unique are not very sustainable.

CRM: So how can brands differentiate themselves?

VanAuken: The two most important things that brands need to be successful are awareness and differentiation, but you can't have one without the other. To differentiate themselves, brands have to find a shared value with their customers. They have to ask themselves: What do we stand for? Is it the same thing that our customers stand for? That's how you create aligned branding. Looking at the automobile industry is a good way to understand this. A Prius, for example, says something very different about a consumer than, say, an SUV. A sports car says something very different than a minivan. Different customers have different expectations from brands, and the brands that are in tune with what the customers expect are the ones that do well.

CRM: The first edition of Brand Aid was published in 2003. How has your take on branding evolved since then?

VanAuken: There has been a tremendous amount of change since then, but the foundation is still the same. When the book first came out, it was before Twitter, before all the big changes in mobile, and things were very different. E-commerce wasn't what it is today. Now you've got some brands that were born entirely online, and for them, the slate is clean. They can just start however they want. But you've also got traditional brick-and-mortar brands that are now having to think and sell in a whole other environment. They're competing with someone like Amazon, and I would say the biggest challenge they're facing is bringing that online and offline experience together—integrating it so there's a smooth transition from one to the other. And on top of that, they've got to think about social media, mobile, and other channels and technologies that are still emerging. The model is changing quickly, and it has been hard for some brands to keep up.

CRM: Can you offer any advice for companies that are struggling to keep up?

VanAuken: Just focus on the brand. Don't try to do everything at once without doing anything well. For example, QR codes were hot, and a lot of companies were trying to experiment with those and integrate them into their branding. Now I don't think they're as big as everyone thought they were going to be. It's not just about keeping up with the latest technology—it's about making sure that every campaign highlights why a brand is unique and why consumers should love that brand instead of its competition. That core concept should be the driving force behind every branding move.

CRM: What are some of the companies that you consider to be examples of great branding?

VanAuken: Tesla is one of my favorite brands. For them, their differentiating factor is that they're trying to change the world and make it better for our children. Every time their heads of marketing talk about the brand, they tear up about it, and it's real. Plus everyone loves [CEO] Elon Musk as an entrepreneur. There's also Coca-Cola. They're a great example of how important it is to keep focused, regardless of how old or big the brand gets. They're a massive company, but they're not just about distribution; they still do marketing really well, and they actually use their age as a differentiating factor. Coca-Cola is a classic, and they leverage that to differentiate themselves.

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