Dear marketers and business people,
As Steven Pressfield famously wrote to his author audience, “Nobody wants to read your shit”.
And, more relevant for our purposes, nobody wants to buy your shit.
But they do want to solve some problem they have, alleviate some pain, feel better about something, save time or money on something they have to do regardless, improve on their current performance, look good to the people around them, be respected, etc.
And sure, maybe you can help them with that.
But before they buy in, they have to believe that.
And before they believe you, they have to find you compelling enough to listen to much at all.
And to find you compelling, they have to notice you and what makes you different – what makes you worth giving a chance.
So, if you’re in a competitive space, you absolutely need to stand out as a brand.
And if you tell the truth about it, odds are you’re in a competitive space.
So while the idea of differentiating yourself is not new – we’re all tired of hearing marketers talk about “breaking through the noise” (as that cliche has been trotted out for a solid 25 years now at least) – it has not gotten any easier, as the world is even noisier, and most spaces even more competitive.
Given all that, we’re gonna look at a 3-pronged approach to setting yourself apart: positioning, persona, and point of view. These elements may certainly have some overlap, but I think looking at them distinctly and then combining them in a way that you’re in position to execute on well gives you the biggest advantage. While you may be a little stronger in one of these areas than the others, if you can find or create some uniqueness in each one, that combination will be hard to ignore.
This is not exactly a new concept, as Positioning has been a key element of brand marketing since Ries and Trout literally wrote the book some 40 plus years ago.
But for our purposes, we want to think about 2 kinds of positioning here:
- your position in the market
- and your position in people’s heads.
Market-wise, you want to get a good idea of how you’d be positioned relative to your competition when it comes to the mix of key buying factors.
Like literally create a graph where the matrices represent 2 criteria/benefits (quality vs cost, speed vs quality, service fees vs startup costs, etc.) and plot out you and your main 2-3 competitors in your space).
Or simply work up a grid that lists all the factors customers & prospects are considering (overall benefits/problems, features, ease of use, etc.) and then see how many boxes are checked (or colored, maybe red, yellow, and green) by you vs your competition – think of a standard platform comparison grid or package pricing grid.
The other kind of position to establish, arguably more important than your actual market position, is where you’re positioned in the mind of your (potential) customers. This is the kind that Ries and Trout coined.
When folks think of your category or type of solution, how do they think of your brand relative to others? Do they think about you at all?
If they aren’t aware of you at all, then there’s obv some awareness-building to do. But when they do become aware of your existence, they’ll think of you in contrast to what they already know – so what or how will they think of you? Where do you fit into their mental world?
For example, think of the world of large trash receptacles. What brand jumps to mind? Hell, do you even know that “dumpster” is a brand name and not a general term? Now think of facial tissues. Who jumps to mind? Search engines? Fast food restaurants?
But not all of us will have household-name, category-dominating brands, right? Positioning isn’t all about dominating the whole space. It’s about dominating the space available to – by knowing what that is, and owning it. When it comes to American fast food, McDonald’s is what often jumps to the forefront for people, but of course they’re also aware of Burger King as the main “challenger” brand (in this case having largely the same offerings), and then Wendy’s as kind of “in the conversation”, maintaining its position through niche favorites like square burgers and of course the Frosty – and of course a distinct brand and “story”.
And that’s where these 3 factors start overlapping and compounding.
When your benefits and features themselves don’t necessarily give you a clearly perceived advantage, a distinct (and resonant) Persona and POV will help give you a clear position in the minds of your potential customers and overall audience.
A V1 positioning statement – a templated and stiff version – could read like: (Brand) provides more/better (key benefit/unique value proposition) to (target market) than (category/competition), supported/evidenced by (key features, other benefits, customer feedback, etc.).
And of course, if you have subsidiary brands or diverse offerings, each would have some kind of positioning for itself, related to but distinct from your overall brand.
Who are you?
Not what you do, or what you’ve done, or could do. Not what you have. Who are you, as a personality, as a way of being? In the storytelling that is your marketing and communications, what character is your brand?
Your brand persona includes what you believe deeply (core values), how you act and what you do (persona archetype), and how you do – and don’t – talk to people (tone of voice).
We’ve all seen shallow, buzzword-laden sets of aspirational aphorisms called Core Values, written by some consultant to at least make the company sound good and at best force some archaic way of operating and set of expectations onto an already-existing group of people.
That’s not what I mean.
I mean, what do the core leaders, contributors, and stakeholders of an organization actually believe in and care about – as evidenced by their own lives and the state of the organization so far? Tell the truth, dig deep, and capture that.
Then identify ways you can further embody and express those values in your operations and communications.
All personalities are unique, and of course our responses and behaviors can vary widely across different circumstances and with different people, and of course your organization has multiple people (and personalities) leading it and involved in it, so how do you distill all that into a core persona for your brand?
One way is through brand persona archetypes.
Based on Jung’s 12 Persona Archetypes, these configurations represent overarching personality types embodied by different characters – irl, in fiction, or in the kind of storytelling that you and I are concerned with. These are personas that people recognize (even if not explicitly) and interact with in a familiar way.
You can pick just one, or to allow for greater range and nuance – to simply make it more real, as compelling characters just aren’t as narrow as an archetype – you can blend 2 or more, choosing which set of qualities is more primary than others.
While many people have used slightly differing archetypes and sets of archetypes over time, the 12 basically boil down to:
- The Rebel,
- The Hero,
- The Innocent,
- The Explorer,
- The Creator,
- The Everyman,
- The Ruler,
- The Sage,
- The Jester,
- The Lover,
- The Caregiver,
- The Magician
Think Harley Davidson for Rebel brand, Jeep as an Explorer brand, Apple as a Creator brand, and so on.
When choosing an archetype, you want to consider the overlap between what you believe in (core values), what you’re out to accomplish (mission/vision/why), what you do uniquely or well (UVP/positioning), and who you’re talking to (ideal customer persona), so that your persona authentically represents you and resonates with the right people.
When we did our process ourselves to identify our own true persona as a firm, we were often surprised by the answers that we gave to different questions, and while the final persona seems obvious if you’ve been in or interacted with the company – jokey, rebellious creatives – it was not what we would’ve come to if we hadn’t done the work.
You’ve got to put the work in, and it’s gotta be a fit, for you and your audience.
Tone of Voice
So now that you have a sense of the overall persona and beliefs of this character that is your brand, the question is, how does it speak?
And just as importantly, how does it definitely not speak?
The point here is to set some guidelines and guardrails for whoever will be communicating through/as the brand in formats like website copy, social media, brand videos, online ads, etc.
Is it passionate or matter of fact? Irreverent or always very respectful? Is humor used? Is there any way you definitely don’t want to come across?
The Nielsen tone scale is a great place to get started, and then you can add more specific descriptors to expand on it and refine it from there.
Point of View
Of course, tone matters little if you don’t have shit to say.
Your persona and tone may well resonate with someone, and you may indeed be well-suited to help them, but now it’s time to say something worthwhile.
Maybe your unique position/capacities and a well-crafted brand identity combine to form a narrative that’s already unique enough to garner and maintain attention. Maybe saying the same thing as everyone, but saying it differently is enough in your case. Great, lean in on that!
If not, and for most of us this is the case, you’ve got to identify and communicate some unique perspective you’re bringing to your space – at least unique to your category or audience. What view, philosophy, specific experience, knowledge base, or other value can you be communicating that nobody else is or even can?
Sometimes this is obvious, and the obvious answer is correct, and the job at hand is to more effectively tell that story. Sometimes it’s obvious, but we’re again too close to and invested in our own situation and we’re wrong, and sometimes we have no idea what this could be – and in either case the work required is to set aside our assumptions and sort out a truly unique narrative that we can weave through our communications and content going forward.
Looking for ways to stand out in a crowded and competitive space? Well hopefully you learned at least one thing here that’ll help you differentiate and resonate at a different level.
If you’re bringing real value, acting true to your beliefs, and have created a compelling character to better communicate a unique and impactful narrative, I’m thinking you’ll be just fine.
Now, some folks may take issue with the total lack of mentioning channels and tactics, especially performance marketers and non-marketer hack-seeking business leaders.
So here’s some nuggets for you:
What channel should you use? Out of all the best channels to reach your audience (part of what you should figure out when doing your ideal customer profiling work), which 1 or 2 are you best suited to communicate through, given everything we’ve already talked about and your available capacities & resources? Boom, focus on those.
When should you post on social? Who tf knows? Depends on like 5 different things at least, and some of those factors change every so often.
See, this is why you need to know strategy before talking tactics.
Now some folks only want to talk tactics, and of course plenty of marketers and agencies only sell and work in some channels with some tactics. Which is fine.
We don’t do that here though.
There are a lot of agencies. A lot of creative agencies. A lot of digital agencies – even right here in Buffalo, NY.
We however are a small agency of jokey rebellious creatives that believe smart strategy always comes first, great work naturally follows with partnership and perseverance, and even brands in the most boring-seeming spaces have something unique to say – no bullshitting required (or tolerated).
See how that works?
And that’s what this piece is all about. If you’ve got something special to offer, something different to say, and a compelling way to present it to people, your brand can stand out in even the most competitive spaces.
Maybe then your people will want to read – and even buy – your shit.