3 TRAITS OF UNSUCCESSFUL BRANDS: #1 Bad benchmarking
Why looking over the fence at your competitors isn’t everything.
Many businesses have rivals they grudgingly admire (or perhaps consciously detest) and organisations that they aspire to be like. In sectors where competition is fierce and there’s a need to attract customers or to pitch your services against others, standing apart from your peers is of paramount importance. But take a look at almost any sector and it’s easy to spot the businesses whose brands are failing to articulate not just a credible and communicable point of distinction, but any difference whatsoever.
If one of a brand’s main goals is to articulate difference in the mind of an audience, why are so many organisations clearly getting it wrong?
There are many reasons why a brand isn’t successful—underinvestment, inability to focus, fear of innovation, a lack of clarity as to who the audience is or what motivates them. Many problems are unique to individual business cases or industries. However, I’m going to discuss three of the most common errors that poorly branded businesses make, regardless of sector.
The first of these is BAD BENCHMARKING.
Being hyper-aware of your competition’s every move, how they act and communicate can mean the difference between success and failure. Appearing to be in not just the same race, but as close as possible to a competitor might at first seem like a winning formula. After all if your rival has a successful brand, surely making yours feel similar will ensure success? Unfortunately not.
You can see this type of approach for yourself quiet easily. Walk around a health food store and count how many products that wish to say ‘natural’ have a green label and a logo featuring a leaf motif. Or consider the amount of Fried Chicken shops that co-opt an American state into their name —Nebraska Fried Chicken anyone?
When it comes to branding, conformity of thinking isn’t reserved for consumer goods, it’s also rife in B2B. Depressingly, far too many management consultancies and professional services firms feel a compulsion to adopt a dark ‘corporate blue’ palette teamed with images of generic business meetings on their homepage. Why is this? Why was it that sometime in the past, almost an entire industry determined that blue, in all it’s many dark hues, makes it appear trusted, when in reality, blue most likely appears a cold, impersonal colour?
Why do brands end up so blinkered in outlook? The main reason is that those in charge of developing the branding simply chose to look at their own sector for inspiration, rather then outside of it for inspiration and insight. This is a big mistake. It asserts that customers view their industry in exactly the same way that it views itself. That customers aren’t excited by new ideas or approaches. Crucially, it assumes that by looking, sounding and feeling pretty much identical to your competitors, your customer will be prepared to make a value judgement based on…what exactly? If every brand in your sector looks the same, any brand that stands out even slightly will be memorable.
I spent time researching international airport identities and rapidly discovered the vast majority of logos have exactly the same starting points of reference— flight, direction or motion.
Looking at these logos individually says very little, but if we consider them collectively some deeper truths about the industry and the way it wishes to be perceived are revealed:
1. It’s an industry where creative expression might be assigned a lower priority than say, pragmatism and solidity.
2. Airports believe that their brands need to communicate only their base function, one which in turn provides no differentiation.
For me, there’s also a bigger revelation.
Originally, when few of us flew, airports were seen as glamorous places. Then, as flight opened up to the masses, they became a mix of complex infrastructure and glorified retail park. This homogeneity of visual style can be seen as a reflection of how, collectively, airports have struggled to define their own unique identity in the mind of the public. Their logos are attempting to claim some of the excitement of flight, when in truth a passenger’s experience of the airport is entirely ground-based.
Our rebrand for London Luton Airport sought to shift this conversation, putting the focus first and foremost on the passengers’ experience at the airport, not some vague notion of flight. Our starting point was to look at the spaces their passengers visited, to gain points of reference beyond the aviation — retailers, other types of transit hubs, sports arenas.
You might ask what’s so wrong with simply fitting in with your competitors —the answer is nothing, providing you want to appear as simply another ‘me-too’ company. The problem arises when it becomes a business necessity to succinctly differentiate yourself—and, unfortunately, unless you are market leader by some clear distance, there will always be solid commercial reasons to do so.