The Secret to Standing Out

When someone invents a successful recipe, you can be sure everyone will want to imitate it. Visit any bookseller’s Web site and you’ll notice, more often than not, it replicates YouTube and MySpace had no sooner attracted millions of visitors than imitations sprouted like mushrooms. Likewise, if your Web site is wildly successful, imitators will adopt your format.

Perhaps you’re on the copycat bandwagon. Is your brand disappearing from consumers’ radar because there’s no perceivable difference between your site, ads, and newsletter, and those of your nearest competitor? Check it out. Remove your logo and company name from your on- and offline materials, and do the same to your competitor’s. The terrifying truth may be you can’t tell the difference between your brand’s stuff and the other guy’s. The material aggregates as one bland image.

As my dad used to say, “If you want to get ahead of the leader, don’t follow his tracks in the snow.” Forge a new path to take your brand in a new direction.

A good place to seek inspiration is from emerging markets, such as India, China, or Japan. When I recently visited India, I was struck by the fact most Indian companies are based on entirely different values and visions than those in the West. We’re so conditioned to those values we’ve come to expect the brand values to contribute to brand uniformity and predictability.

The Hinduja Group, one of the most powerful companies in India (it owns and operates brands like Gulf worldwide), has caught my attention. Like many powerful Indian companies, it’s family owned, which introduces a wholly different environment compared to Western companies. The values Hinduja is based on, reflecting those of the family behind it, are fundamental to this atmosphere and offer something we can learn from.

Two of Hinduja’s guiding principles are “work to give” and “advance fearlessly.” These principles have driven major ventures within the Group, including Hinduja Group hospital, university, and school development. These principles mandate all Group staff members work with initiative and implement courageous solutions.

Check out your own vision statement. Is it really your brand speaking, or could it belong to any brand? Are you laboring under a standard vision that merely fills a frame in the reception area? Or is it a motivating set of statements that powerfully influence your work and build your brand every day? Does your vision statement make your brand stand out? If not, your first action is to revitalize that vision statement.

Once you’ve addressed this fundamental expression of your company, cut your marketing budget in half. Crazy? Consider Japan.

I recently visited a rather unusual company in Tokyo. Triumph is one of the world’s leading lingerie and underwear companies. A family-owned German company trying to secure a foothold in probably the most competitive market in the world, Triumph had to be different. Its marketing budget promised limited effectiveness if it were to be used only on conventional marketing. Creativity is Triumph’s survival tool.

Over the past 20 years, Triumph Japan has released two new bras per year. Each release is launched with a creative event. One year, the company invited Japanese women to deliver their used bras to their local Triumph stores to receive a free new bra. The invitation led to a ritual: close to a million bras were gathered and destroyed at a shrine in the center of Tokyo, an event that made headlines around the world. On another occasion, Triumph released a bra that could be converted into an environmentally friendly shopping bag. Then, there was the winter it released a bra with pads filled with a gel that could be heated in a microwave, part of a campaign to help people stay warm in an eco-friendly way.

These approaches took Japan by storm. Triumph is now one of two market leaders in Japan, and the company still restricts its marketing budget to encourage the creativity that has secured its leading position.

Make your product or service stand out. Toblerone, the triangular chocolate, wouldn’t exist today if Wal-Mart had had a say in it. A triangular bar doesn’t fit shelves, stacking systems or the space management programs used by large retailers. Here’s another cause of brand-blandness: retailers pressure brands to adopt uniform shapes and sizes because it makes their lives easier. Brands, and the products and services they represent, must resist this pressure.

As I discuss in my latest book, less than 1 percent of today’s packaging design really stands out. In this respect, cost-savings aren’t the way forward. I’ve been repeatedly surprised to learn that spending big on packaging (sometimes double delivery cost) often pays a handsome return. Packaging can help a brand stand out. Your product or service quickly becomes the medium for the packaging. Is your packaging driven by retailer specifications, or have you adopted the Toblerone approach? It’s no wonder Toblerone is still around. The brand maintains and builds consumer loyalty despite an almost non-existing marketing budget.

Bigger marketing budgets aren’t the answer. I bet if you asked the CMO of Coca-Cola, Disney, or Ford, he’d claim his marketing budget is too small. There’s always someone with a fatter wallet than yours. Don’t excuse a lack of market share with budget limitations. You have the ability, a mandate even, to have your brand truly stand out in a world of bland brands.

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