A brand is a complex organism. This is the first in a series of articles in which we examine a successful brand’s component parts.

What makes a successful brand? It has to stand for something fundamental—an underlying bedrock idea or principle that at every turn supports a company or product. This foundational platform is called positioning, and without it a brand can have no traction.

Successful positioning rejects conformity. At its best, positioning elevates a brand above the fray so that people can’t help but take notice. The human brain instinctively looks for things that are different and unexpected. So a brand that stands in stark contrast to its competition will attract people’s attention and have a distinct advantage in the marketplace.

To be noticed and interesting, however, a brand’s positioning must accomplish three things. It must

  1. Be different
  2. Be focused
  3. Be relevant

Neglect any one of these factors and the platform collapses. Each one plays a critical role in the psychology of branding. Let’s see why these factors are important.

Be Different

You can’t attract a loyal following if nobody notices you. So if you are serious about developing a powerful brand, your first order of business is to make sure you stick out from your competition. Sure, there’s more to a brand than being different, but if your business blends into the background noise, it’s lost from the start.

You see, people today are faced with a dizzying array of choices. Marty Neumeier, author of The Brand Gap and Zag, writes: “An over-abundance of look-alike products and me-too services is forcing customers to search for something, anything, to help them separate the winners from the clutter.”

It’s possible, of course, to take differentiation too far. Just because everyone in your law firm dresses up like clowns doesn’t mean people want to be represented by Bozo in court. But the line between memorable and outrageous isn’t always perfectly clear. Twenty-five years ago, who would have thought that companies with names like Google, Virgin, and Amazon would become iconic global brands?

Differentiation provides needed contrast and helps people make choices. It’s what makes a successful brand unique. So stand tall—and make it easy for prospects to choose you!

Here are just a few ways your firm might set itself apart:

  • Project a sense of personality
  • Offer a unique business model
  • Separate yourself from competitors visually
  • Use fresh language to describe your firm and services
  • Offer a truly unique technology or service
  • Be the first or only firm to do something
  • Change your name to something bold and memorable

Be Focused

When we have a problem that we can’t fix ourselves, we reach out to specialists. Specialists cost a little more than generalists, but many people are willing to pay a premium for their expertise.

A majority of service businesses today, however, take the opposite tack. Instead of narrowing their expertise, many companies expand their service offerings in hopes of broadening their reach and attracting more customers. The problem with this approach is that lack of focus means you have more competition — which leads to commoditization. Once your services are considered a commodity, your prestige and margins will suffer. To counter this tendency, find a niche and not only will qualified customers seek you out, they’ll be willing to pay more for your services.

By definition, focus requires sacrifice. You have to narrow your appeal. But the payoff is far greater engagement within your target audience and the potential to charge higher fees.

Here are a few common ways your firm could build focus:

  • Specialize in a specific industry
  • Specialize in a service offering
  • Concentrate on a specific role with your clients’ organizations
  • Specialize in serving a client of a certain size
  • Focus on a specific geographic area

Be Relevant

If you aren’t relevant, you aren’t in business. A company can be highly differentiated and specialized, but if few people actually want its services, the company won’t make any money.

Before you commit to a new direction, test the waters and find out if there is sufficient interest in your specialty. You may find that the niche you are considering is simply too small to support your expenses, much less your growth ambitions!

Can a company survive without positioning? Absolutely. In fact, the majority of businesses eke out a modest existence. But branding isn’t about survival, it’s about “thrive-al”—creating a lasting emotional connection with customers that fuels reputation, visibility, and growth. And brand positioning is where it all starts. Establish great positioning, and your business will have the stored energy it needs to grow and flourish.

4 Keys to a Powerful Position

  1. Find your niche. Are your competitors generalists or specialists? Do they stand out in any way? What opportunities exist for your company to create contrast and specialize? What does your company do better than anyone else?
  2. Talk to as many customers and prospects as possible to find out if your business focus is viable. Make sure there is demand for your services.
  3. Develop a brief, 1- or 2-sentence positioning statement that lays out what you do and what you stand for. Then ask yourself why a customer would care.
  4. Think of ways you can create contrast in the marketplace. Can you use messaging, unique services, or design to distinguish your business?

Great Positioning

So what is great positioning, anyway? The strongest positioning is built on reduction. People unconsciously place brands in categories. Those brands that rise to the top are known for simple—even simplistic—ideas. In fact, the top brands in most categories can usually be summed up in a word or a short phrase:

  • FedEx revolutionized the package delivery business because they became synonymous with “overnight.”
  • Tesla has built its reputation on the combination of two ideas: “electric cars” and “style.”
  • What company has become known for spectacular “innovation” in the consumer electronics market? Apple, of course.
  • Management consulting firm McKinsey has earned an enviable reputation for being “smart.”

The more you can simplify your positioning, the more powerful it becomes.

The Problem of Positioning Professional Services

Unfortunately, many professional services firms are built on complexity. The customized nature of their services can make these businesses difficult to define. The language they speak can be highly technical and dense. So how do you simplify a complex, multifaceted business?

The answer lies in uncovering a firm’s fundamental purpose. Ask questions such as “What is the most basic benefit you provide?” or “When an engagement is over, what fundamental goal have you achieved?” For those with the courage to distill their services to their essence, a forceful new market position will emerge.

So, what makes a successful brand? It all starts with positioning.