Posted by: yacmichigan | February 19, 2014

Branding With Distinction by Gair Maxwell the 2014 MAIA Convention Forum Speaker

Article is from Gair Maxwells blog at 

Branding With Distinction

Some people use Dells, HP’s and Acers, but other people are Apple.

Have you ever wondered why that is?

And how a similar approach to branding can be applied to your own business category?

Think about it this way.

Dell, Acer, Samsung, HP, Toshiba and others represent no more than a “badge of ownership” in the product category known as personal computers. “Badges of ownership” are common, non-distinct, ‘same old-same old’ products or services. A “brand of distinction”, however, is that rare, precious jewel that stands apart.

Suppose you walk in on a person who is working with a Dell, and you offer to replace it with a Toshiba, Acer, HP or any other number of models. Assuming that their files are transferred and the technical specs of the machine are comparable; do you think the other person would throw a hissy fit? Not likely. However, the same cannot be said when you attempt this experiment on an Apple user. Try and swap a Dell or an Acer even-up for a Mac and prepare to be subjected to varying degrees of bodily harm!

A badge of ownership does nothing more than distinguish one company’s products or services from a competitor across the street or across the web, making potential assets such as company name, storefront signage, slogan or logo virtually irrelevant. While “badges of ownership” are easily interchangeable, Apple serves as a great example of a “brand of distinction” that commands a level of emotional attachment transcending price, products and the purchase itself. Over time (and we’re talking years/decades), that emotional connection grows deeper, generating respect, honor and (are you paying attention CEO’s?) category-killing financial results. On the other hand, “badges of ownership” might have a few early wins, but often find it difficult to draw on the hearts and purse strings of customer loyalty for any sustainable length of time.

Look around and you will notice the same emotionally-charged dynamic surfaces in a wide range of what we refer to as “brands of distinction”.

From upscale luxury brands such as Rolex, Louis Vuitton and Ferrari, to otherwise ordinary products and services such as Dove soap, Jack Daniels whiskey, Starbucks coffee, Tilley hats, Nike footwear and Dos Equis beer. A wide range of similarities surface when comparing extremely different ‘brands of distinction’ from a Harvard degree to yoga wear from LuLu Lemon; from a Harley-Davidson chopper to IKEA home furnishings; from American Girl to Zappos and 1-800-GOT-JUNK?.

What allows these “brands of distinction” to emerge as category leaders, enjoying unparalleled business success fuelled by legions of loyal customers? And how can this approach be applied to your business?

Like Apple and other “brands of distinctions”, the NFL’s Pittsburgh Steelers command an unusually high level of loyalty, respect and profitability, due in no small part to having an unusual grasp of understanding “who” they are and the market they serve. While rival teams throw big money at pricey, showboating free-agents, the Steelers build quietly through the draft, refusing to go “Hollywood”. People in Pittsburgh aren’t flashy, don’t want to be flashy and don’t particularly like players who are flashy. As a result, you don’t see many Steelers in the tabloids or dating starlets or supermodels. The Steelers don’t employ cheerleaders and unlike any other team in professional sports have only employed three head coaches since 1969. By rejecting the cult of personality (which may help sell more souvenirs), the Steelers create a culture of success, where they believe it really counts.


Pittsburgh has won more Super Bowl titles than any other team.  By knowing “who they are” in terms of core identity, purpose and how they measure success, Apple and the Pittsburgh Steelers are great examples of how a “brand of distinction” can serve as a guide to decision-making. This becomes so ingrained in leading organizations that they consciously ask themselves, “How will this decision impact upon the brand?” or “Are we on-brand?”

According to Shelly Lazarus, chairman of Ogilvy & Mather:
“Once you understand what the brand is all about, it gives direction to the whole enterprise. You know what products you’re supposed to make and not make. You know how you’re supposed to answer your telephone. You know how you’re going to package things. It gives a set of principles to an entire enterprise.”

In other words, you can’t just “copy and paste” the Apple story and culture and pretend it’s your own brand. The brutal truth is that Apple, the Pittsburgh Steelers and other “brands of distinction” have something no other marketer will be able to emulate, because it comes from something deep inside.

You’ve either got it, or you’re committed to working on it.

A reason for existing.

Not just a reason for selling.

A “reason for existing” translates into a crusade or story where the brand either plays or supports the role of protagonist or hero. The best examples are rooted in fundamental human truths; Virgin believes ordinary people are often abused by big, faceless corporations and becomes a modern-day Robin Hood with irreverent pokes at the “establishment”. Apple believes the power of individuality should always triumph and people should be free to create what they want. Disney believes we should hold on to our childhood imagination and just be kids for a day. The Steelers believe you should take your hard hat to work and focus on fundamentals like running the football and playing great defence.

Forward-thinking CEO’s recognize their companies need to differentiate themselves in ways that can’t be copied. Whether it is a differentiated strategy, product, service, technology or process, a “brand of distinction” won’t bet the house on “the latest, greatest technology/widget” or rely on bromides like “we just do it better.” Instead, they have a clear grasp of who they are, what they stand against, and how to live out those values over time. Branding at this level is not a cosmetic applied to make an organization look pretty. Rather it’s your DNA; a true reflection of who you are, what you do and how you serve.

While “badges of ownership” coax, cajole and sometimes beg for business, a “brand of distinction” is confident in what it’s doing to attract the right kind of people in the first place. While transactional-based badges scream “Trust us!”, great brands quietly go about their business to keep relational promises.

When it comes to building “brands of distinction”, fancy logos, eye-catching design or cute, funny and clever ads, don’t do much of anything if your message lacks depth and authenticity. Pretty pictures or the latest buzz words won’t make you cooler. They don’t make your products better, your people more friendly and knowledgeable or inspire customers to line up and camp overnight for a new product release.

The best brands in the world transcend their actual product or service and create an emotional bond by knowing at the deepest level why they exist in the first place.

Starbucks sells the spirit of community through a “third place” between work and home; Pike’s Place Fish Market in Seattle is selling “goofiness on the job”, not fish. Las Vegas is selling “sin” not tourism; Mont Blanc sells “prestige” not pens; Harley-Davidson sells “rebellion” not motorcycles; Rolex sells “achievement” not watches; Dove sells “self-esteem” not soap; 1-800-GOT JUNK? sells “clean & hip, not trash removal . In other words, they know what the customer is really buying and how it connects to what they already believe.

A “brand of distinction” is not something you buy off the shelf. It’s what you know and feel deep in your bones in terms of who you already are, why your business exists (beyond the making of money) and who you are determined to become for the whole world to see. Anyone can serve a cup of coffee. Anyone can toss fish or haul junk. But, precious few can create a brand of distinction around those business models. The difference? Brands of distinction adopt guiding principles that speak to a bigger purpose, then stick to them.

A “brand of distinction” resonates with customers because its “story” comes from a very real place. Dig into your own history, rediscover why your company was created in the first place, find out its reason for being and determine the greater purpose it serves. With enough introspection, patience and hard work, you will find an Apple-worthy branding gem that’s just as relevant today as it ever was.

What is the one thing you want your company to be known for?

– See more at:

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