In a world of fierce competition where feature parity is easier than ever to achieve, relying too heavily on your product to make your company stand out will leave you in the dust. With customer perception and brand loyalty driving purchases – 77% of US adults repeatedly buy from the same brands – branding has become a stronger indicator of a winning product than feature differentiation. While the best products still ultimately win, combating feature parity and marketing perception can be difficult. Here’s why brand is your best bet.

Features are table stakes

Let’s be clear: industry-leading features are crucial in delighting and retaining customers. You can’t expect to win with a unique brand if you don’t have the goods to back it up. State-of-the-art features are a given; if your features aren’t competitive, that’s a different story altogether. But, even the best features are not enough to dominate market share. Today, SaaS products are easier than ever to build and the barrier to keeping up with industry leaders is lower. Even if your product is truly, quantifiably different and better than competitors, you need an even better brand to prove it.

Product-based_differentiation

Drift CEO David Cancel has spoken at length on why SaaS companies can’t win on features alone. A post about his brand-first philosophy on the Codementor blog sums it up neatly:

“Because SaaS products are so easy to build and deploy today, if a market has serious demand, it will quickly become flooded with products touting similar features. So to win, you need to win on brand. The market leaders will be the ones customers love and trust more, because all of the options will have similar features.” via Codementor

Even your coolest feature, your most innovative idea, will only get you so far if you don’t have a strong brand telling the right story about it. Any company, including every single one of your competitors, can build a similar feature. It’s no longer a matter of trusting that the best-built product will win out, even though it should. When multiple solutions tout the same features, consumers won’t be able to determine which is actually best. They’ll go with the option – the brand – that most appeals to them.

To put it simply, in today’s competitive markets, success boils down to how you tell your story and position the outcomes your features deliver to your customers. That story and the brand that tells it is what people buy into; the features behind the story are simply the means to an end. By leading with your brand and not your features, you put your company in a position to paint a broader picture and win consumers over with what really makes you unique. Your features may never be your biggest differentiator, but your brand should be. And brand advocacy is a powerful thing.

Brand loyalty always wins out

Once earned, brand loyalty is difficult to break. Consumers are creatures of habit who find comfort in identifying with a particular product or brand. Whether it’s Pepsi vs. Coke, Dunkin’ vs. Starbucks, or Trader Joe’s vs. Whole Foods, harboring blind (sometimes irrational) brand loyalties is a familiar feeling. The more someone identifies with a particular brand, the harder it is to shake them of that conviction. People don’t flip flop between black and white brand decisions, even if their rival brand has a cool new feature or superior quality.

iphone memeWhich is why investing in and leading with your brand is so important. It’s far better to be Apple in the above example. Many iPhone users are aware that other smartphones offer better interfaces, but do we switch? Absolutely not. Features alone – no matter how impressive – are not going to tempt customers away from your competitors. You’re better off winning at the onset with a brand and narrative that customers are excited to get behind.

Sure, sometimes it is about the better phone or the better soda, but more often than not it’s about the more desirable story. People don’t just buy products, they buy better versions of themselves, as Pepsi realized in the ‘60s when execs pivoted their marketing strategy to sell their product “without reference to its inherent qualities, [but] focusing instead on an image of the people who bought it, or should be buying it.” Consumers make purchases based on brand narratives that they trust will make them cooler, better people.

Many brands that do this well offer robust narratives for consumers to buy into. REI, for example, sells the story of outdoor living, not the values of their water-resistant tents. American Express sells a lifestyle, not a credit card. Brand, not features. So, what does it take to differentiate your brand?

Important areas for every brand to nail

Today’s consumers have high expectations – a winning brand has to look the part, talk the talk, and walk the walk. It’s not enough to have an eye-catching logo or a memorable slogan. The most compelling brands exude style, personality, values, and service that speaks to consumers’ high standards.

Style is often the first thing that comes to mind when thinking about branding. Despite being warned not to judge a book by its cover, appearance is the primary means by which people form opinions. Every good chef knows that people eat with their eyes first; it doesn’t matter how good your mac 'n' cheese tastes if it looks unappetizing. If your brand doesn’t look compelling, consumers will never even make it to your features page. Style speaks to legitimacy and innovation. And legitimacy lends itself to higher selling prices: consumers show a tendency to pay more for cooler brands; just ask Yeti (no pun intended).

Achieving a style that is unique and visually appealing is a reliable way to set your brand apart. If your product is sleek and modern, so should be your brand. And once you’ve established a clear-cut style, you should publish brand guidelines that your team can use to accurately represent your brand in everything they do.

Guru Brand Guidelines

Personality, when done right, has the ability to really set brands apart. Consumers want companies that are authentic and trustworthy; they want brands that feel human, not cold and sanitized. Figure out what that looks like for your company – it could be playful, sassy, serious, you name it – and weave that sentiment through everything you do. If you want consumers to trust in and identify with your brand, you have to be different and you have to be memorable. Just be sure to stick to a personality that fits your brand and your audience. An inauthentic brand personality is worse than no personality at all.

When appropriate, injecting an element of fun into your positioning is often a successful tactic. Social media has provided a great outlet for brands to show a more playful side that resonates with consumers. Wendy’s gained notoriety in recent years by holding nothing back on their Twitter feed. The internet, and other brands, took notice of Wendy’s no-holds-barred strategy and the response was overwhelmingly positive.

Wendy's Twitter

There are other areas outside of social media where your brand’s personality can shine through as well. Your website, your messaging, your swag – really any manifestation of your brand – should feature a touch of what makes your company unique. The more present your brand’s personality is, the easier it is for consumers to relate to you and align themselves with your products.

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Company values have become even more important in recent years. Consumers demand socially-aware brands who embody values they respect. 64% of consumers cite shared values as the primary reason they have a relationship with a brand. This goes back to telling a story that consumers can buy into. A dynamic, admirable brand is more than just a product, it’s a way of life. That way of life needs to embody more than just consumerism.

Defined core values are especially important to the hard-to-please younger generations: 73% of millennials and 72% of Gen Zs reporting a willingness to pay extra for products and services from companies dedicated to social and environmental change. Your company needs to have a firm grasp on its fundamental beliefs, and your mission has to go beyond driving revenue. Values can include things like a commitment to superior service, a commitment to diversity, or a commitment to social action. Whatever your brand identifies with, those values should be apparent in everything you do.

Starbucks recently got a lot of heat for an incident that went directly against one of its core values: Creating a culture of warmth and belonging, where everyone is welcome. How did the company react to this breach in culture? By closing down 8,000 company-owned stores to deliver a training session on preventing implicit bias. This example shows true values in action. Starbucks displayed a dedication to upholding company beliefs and re-upped its commitment to respect and inclusion.

Strong brands stand for something and follow through on their commitments. Make sure your company has a clearly-defined mission and incorporate it into everything you do. Consumers react favorably to brands they can form emotional attachments to.

Service encompasses every interaction a consumer has with your brand. How easy is it for them to make a purchase on your website? Can they quickly get through to a human when they need help? Are your sales reps pushy or respectful? Every customer touchpoint, every conversation with a representative, should be anchored around outstanding service.

"Customers today expect anyone they interact with during their customer journey, both pre- and post- sales, to be able to provide the same level of service and knowledge. They don’t really care what the person at your company’s title is or if they sit pre-sales or post-sales. They expect everyone to be able to give them what they need when they need it, with the same level of service and expertise.” - Roz Greenfield, Level213

Shopify does a great job of anchoring its brand in outstanding customer experience. High quality support, customer service, and training are at the heart of Shopify’s mission to empower entrepreneurs – “It’s not just tech support, it’s people support,” as they like to say. The company has even opened a brick-and-mortar store in LA dedicated to in-person help and support. By doubling down on service, Shopify creates strong advocates from its customers, which in turn drives customer loyalty.

A poor customer experience is one of the few factors that could prompt a customer to make a brand switch, which is why it’s imperative to get it right.

Your product is only as strong as your brand

If you’re going to spend time and resources in building a next-level product, you have to curate a top-tier brand to support and market it. Leading with your brand will open doors that your product could not access on features alone. Let’s face it – if you don’t win the brand war, your competitor will. And where will that leave your product? A brand that has style, personality, values, and excellent service has the power to truly differentiate. Today’s market leaders all practice this. It’s time you did too.

For further reading, check out how Intercom approaches building a brand.

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