Brand differentiation is what will get you the lion’s share of buyer attention.

With a stand-out brand, you will achieve what the 333 million brands out there wish they could do:

  • Gain loyal customers
  • Become a household name
  • Beat competitors
  • Have a positive impact
  • Accelerate business growth

Today, we’re going to break down how to differentiate your business in eight easy-to-follow steps, plus take a look at how five brilliant companies are killing it when it comes to differentiating themselves from their competition.

Keep reading, or jump ahead: 

What is brand differentiation?

According to Articulate Marketing, “Brand differentiation is your identity as distinct from others. The things that make you original. Maybe even odd. Worthy of attention, expressive, diverse, value-added, authoritative, helpful, customer-focused, people-led, more than the sum of your parts.”

In other words, brand differentiation is how you set yourself apart from competitors. It’s also how you turn consumers into advocates for your brand.

Next, let’s dive into how you can differentiate your brand.

The Eight Steps to Brand Differentiation

These steps are based on principles from “The Difference Engine”. This is a model of differentiation best practices founded by HubSpot Diamond Solutions partner, Articulate Marketing.

To start, let’s view the eight steps from a high level. Then, we’ll dive into the details, along with examples you can use to inspire your own efforts.

In this article, we’re going to look at:

  1. The importance of your mission and strategy.
  2. Why company culture plays such a major role.
  3. The toolkit you need to differentiate your business.
  4. Defining your positioning with strategic blueprints.
  5. The core principles of stand-out brand architecture.
  6. What is thought leadership (and how to do it well).
  7. Capturing your audience’s attention and generating leads.
  8. The differentiating benefits of iterative optimization.

1. Your mission.

Google’s mission is to organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful. This Google example showcases a few key elements to help you define your mission:

  • Recognizability: You read this, you know it’s Google’s mission.
  • Ambition: “The world’s information”.
  • Actions and outcomes: “Organize” “accessible”, “useful”.
  • Context: Industry position (in this case, the tech sector).
  • Short is best: A dozen words.
  • Clarity: It’s easy to read and understand.

Your mission should be a central goal. From here, you can position your products and services, build out yearly goals, quarterly objectives and metrics for success, and develop your strategies. This is the first step. You’ll want to use this structure to define your ambitions.

Once you’ve identified your mission, everyone in your business will be singing from the same song sheet. Your collective voice will carry. Stations play your tune on the radio, the album goes platinum, you become the next Adele of … HealthTech.

It’s all within reach, if you make it your mission to get there.

2. Talent and culture.

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There are two sides to any brand. The first is the brand identity as it relates to customers.

The second is how your brand is positioned within your community, as an employer, and as a global citizen. In other words, the culture of your company.

Too many organizations pay lip service to culture. They offer basic benefits and post a “values” chart on the wall. It’s not enough. Talented employees will go elsewhere. But employees that enjoy a great company culture are 3.8 times more likely to be engaged. And engaged and talented people make for an exceptional business.

In fact, clients are starting to pay attention to workplace culture, too, because they want to work with happy, supported, and empowered teams—while also having business partners who are committed to shared values. It’s no longer just about cost and results, but about the types of companies people want to partner with for the long-term.

Recommendation: Consider third-party certifications, as provided by the likes of Investors in People and B Corp. Their evaluations leave nowhere to hide, so they keep you honest. Such certifications are the evidence that you really do business differently.

3. The toolkit.

The best businesses use the best tools.

Take Ecologi’s story as an example. Ecologi has established a fantastic brand differentiation strategy. They offer unparalleled transparency around carbon offsetting and tree planting with technology that showcases the great work they do. Their climate-positive mission is timely and well-targeted. What they offer is in-demand given the current environmental crisis. So they began experiencing rapid growth. Businesses want to do their part to achieve net zero. Ecologi provides the means to get there.

Although they had experienced success with HubSpot Sales Hub, they relied on multiple systems for marketing. This meant valuable data was falling through the cracks. They had limited marketing intelligence and patchy lead capture compliance. Any changes relied on dev support.

Once they were successfully brought onto HubSpot’s Marketing Hub, however, their team found they could track lead sources as well as align their marketing and sales processes. By making the most of the tools, they saw accelerated results.

Now, they can personalize campaigns to target sectors, extend their reach, and grow their reputation as a brand.

That example is just one way that tools empower a brand to stand head-and-shoulders above the rest. So, step three: audit your toolkit.

4. Strategic blueprints.

You want to have a strategic blueprint for all elements of your content and communications. These are the core guides for your positioning.

A strategic blueprint is an up-to-date document that everyone in your organization can access.

It’s up to you what you need a blueprint for. Most businesses will have these:

  • Personas: A representation of your ideal customers
  • Messaging: The key messages you want to get across to your audience
  • Tone of voice: The attitude of your business; how you talk on all platforms
  • Writing style: The words and grammar you use
  • Buyer journey: The steps from first touchpoint to paying customer

Consistency is integral to differentiation. If you have a consistent brand, then it’s going to be easier to recognize, whether your audience is reading a Tweet or watching a video.

These strategic blueprints should be applied with such regularity and enthusiasm that an outsider could guess their contents.

Let’s put that idea into practice. Try this exercise. Take one of these strong brands that you’re familiar with and sketch out a persona and the journey they go on to buy, three key messages, five attitude words and a couple of notable styles, such as the use of formal/informal words:

  1. Innocent Drinks
  2. Old Spice
  3. Apple

Once you’ve done that, try to do the same for your business.

5. Brand architecture.

Step five is all about establishing your visual brand. This is a huge topic, but let’s ask ourselves some key questions.

When did you last update your logo? Is it simple, modern, and legible? Do you have a well-defined visual style throughout your website and other channels? Are things like your fonts and color palette defined in a brand book?

Has your website been updated in the last couple of years? Does it accurately reflect your services and your story? Is it fast loading and easy to navigate?

Like with strategic blueprints, consistency is vital. If you have a consistent visual brand, then it’s more likely to become familiar with your audience. Therefore, they will remember who you are.

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Beyond Encryption, a secure communications provider, took their visual branding a step further than most companies. Rather than having one logo and one colorway, they chose to develop a whole brand family.

Each of their product lines has its own logo and design profile; they are harmonious, yet distinct. They all flow from the same brand methodology, with the main site brand and logo as the “parent.”

Beyond Encryption uses this brand family to target segmented audiences while maintaining a clear, differentiated brand.

6. Thought leadership.

Thought leadership is a tactic content marketers use to build credibility for themselves or leaders in their company.

Essentially, thought leadership is brand positioning based on expertise.

The good thing about expertise is, unlike positioning based on price, it’s something you can leverage in a unique and thought-provoking way. It’s the route to long-term positioning that you build over time, rather than a quick and dirty race to the bottom.

Real experts have knowledge and opinions that other people are interested in learning about. Businesses with in-house experts can differentiate themselves by creating thought leadership content, like blogs and white papers, leveraging their expertise. This helps you establish credibility with your audience.

What we don’t suggest, however, is positioning based on the concept of expertise (“I’m an expert, so trust me”). Thought leaders demonstrate their expertise in tangible ways. They have certifications, and are evidence-based. They don’t just say they are experts. They show it.

The other mistake people sometimes make is to confuse expertise with complexity. This means filling your content with obscure jargon about your services. That’s not going to work, either. As Einstein put it, “If you can't explain it simply, you don't understand it well enough.”

7. Lead generation.

Once you’ve got your thought leadership content out into the world, you can expect to see a growing audience coming to your website. From there, you want to capture contact details, such as people’s names and email addresses.

Here is another opportunity to differentiate yourself. The lead generation and nurturing process is where you start to see real engagement with your brand. It’s your chance to build a relationship with prospects.

So many businesses drop the ball here. They miss opportunities to get leads. Or they dive right into pushy sales tactics once they do get them. Here’s an alternative approach:

  • Inform: Provide answers to questions without asking anything in return. Offer resources like eBooks or calculators. Be helpful.
  • Connect: Target content that addresses your lead’s needs, implement personalization and make it easy to get to know your personality and your people a little better.
  • Inspire: Give prospects a means to benchmark their business against competitors. Offer examples of success stories. Suggest a path to the ideal outcome.

8. Iterative optimization.

Lastly, let’s talk optimization.

Sir David Brailsford leads Britain’s first ever professional cycling team. At the 2008 Olympics, his team won the majority of gold medals in track cycling and did the same at the next Olympics.

Sir David Brailsford told Harvard Business Review, “It struck me that we should think small, not big, and adopt a philosophy of continuous improvement through the aggregation of marginal gains. Forget about perfection; focus on progression, and compound the improvements.”

You don’t necessarily need to shake up your whole brand to differentiate your business. You can simply make small improvements that, over time, make a big difference.

In marketing, this means observing what works, tracking and measuring the data, testing variants and implementing the better option, every time. That’s how you go for gold.

These eight steps to brand differentiation are definitely not for the risk averse. But they are for ambitious companies and leaders who have a growth mindset.

The difference between you and every other business out there is you’re willing to take the first step.

With that in mind, read on to learn how five brilliant companies are killing it when it comes to differentiating themselves from their competition.


Top Competition: Sephora, BOMB Cosmetics, Etsy

Lush is unlike any other makeup brand on the marketplace. This cosmetics maker has international reach with a local "warm and fuzzy" approach that isn't afraid to push the boundaries.

So, what makes LUSH so different from the likes of Sephora or even Etsy? Handmade products. Advocates of LUSH are committed to ethical buying, and are obsessed with the purity that comes from a handmade item. The company's biggest success is knowing that its core buyers value social and corporate responsibility over a luxurious and out-of-reach image.

LUSH's branding is simple and genuine, with great contrast between visuals that is simply not seen elsewhere. For that reason, the company has a massive brand-loyal following.

How they're doing it:

  • Understands its customers — appeals to the girl who's "had enough" and believes in what they believe
  • Selfless with its products — offers free samples and in-store trials on nearly everything
  • Not selling an image—the business is selling a viewpoint on how to define "beauty"
  • Offers a one-of-a-kind retail experience like you're walking into an Etsy store in real life


2. Airstream

Top Competition: Jayco, Winnebago, Fleetwood

Airstream is a cult classic — the company was founded in 1929 (if great marketing is a mix of inbound and tradition, there's your tradition). As one of the most recognized RVs on the road, its sleek, silver cabin is an iconic image of cross-country road trips.

So what makes Airstream any different than Winnebago or Jayco? Like LUSH, it focuses on the intangible desires of its core customer. Airstream owners embrace the "retro"side of life, something other RV brands just don't offer. What you get with an Airstream is exactly what you want to tout on the open road: a classic exterior with a modern interior. It's a great blend of the past meets the future.

Airstream is simply a "silent" luxury. It doesn't scream "I'm rich," but definitely makes you feel like it from the inside. The company even partners with luxury brands like Mercedes Bens to maintain the sense of independence that "streamers" (the affectionate nickname of Airstream drivers) crave.

How they're doing it:

  • Focus on quality, image and community — expensive, but rarely lose value, and built to last
  • Recently relaunched a new website and digital experience
  • Offers endless community and dealership events where you can sit in an Airstream to experience it yourself
  • Customer stories focused on Airstream experiences, with the tagline "Live Riveted"


3. Oscar Health Insurance

Top Competition: New York Life, MetLife

Oscar Health Insurance prides itself on being insurance made friendly. For the layperson, healthcare is a fairly daunting subject. With that in mind, this brand sought to make medical coverage — a tradition for its core customer — personable and easy to understand.

But that's not the only way Oscar Health Insurance uses simplicity to differentiate itself in the healthcare marketplace.

In prioritizing an inbound approach to its insurance offerings, Oscar Health Insurance designed a user experience (UX) into its website that allows customers to browse and learn about what they're paying for, buy their desired plan, and customize it with a doctor who is in their insurance network — all from the Oscar Health website. This build-your-own-plan concept makes the company truly shine in its market.

How they're doing it:

  • Uses bright visuals, large short copy, and a parallax scrolling site to make digesting information easy on desktop, mobile and tablet
  • Focuses on a small, niche network just in New York
  • The company is transparent in partnering with doctors, allowing you to customize your quote immediately
  • Making customer-benefit promises like "Talk with our doctors for free, one will call you within the hour"



4. Whole Foods

Top Competition: Trader Joe's, EarthFare, Fresh Market

Whole Foods goes beyond groceries -- the company is one of content generators and thought leaders. You don't often find them from a consumer packaged goods (CPGs) manufacturer.

So, what does content marketing and thought leadership do for Whole Foods customers? Better yet, what does it give people that they can't get from Fresh Market or even Trader Joe's?

Whole Foods mixes traditional CPG marketing with the content, storytelling, and digital experience of inbound marketing by showing shoppers why they buy the food they buy: a healthy, diverse, and "wholesome" selection. The company goes beyond the get-in-and-get-out experience of so many grocery stores today while still being a top-tier, large, national chain.

How they're doing it:

  • Shares ideas, generating meaningful content that isn't boastful or sales-driven. The business understands what its customer is looking for
  • Promotes a "greener" lifestyle -- got rid of plastic bags in 2008
  • Focuses on local stores, taking away that feeling of the big chain
  • Bright, unique and cheerful store design that's as easy to navigate as its website
  • Partners with shows like Top Chef to promote their food
  • Hosts events, runs multiple blogs and has an app -- showing the future of grocery shopping


5. Yoh

Top Competition: Adecco, Kelly Services, Manpower

It's one thing to sell a service, but it's another thing to sell a message behind that service. Yoh embodies this difference in its recruitment product, which helps match tech companies with the right talent.

Yoh looks absolutely nothing like any other recruiting site (or company, for that matter). The company gives its customers — both recruiters and candidates, depending on the service they seek — the courage to steer away from generic, stuffy pictures and copy. This is critical when advertising yourself to a business or potential hire.

Yoh even makes learning about the company fun and engaging, showing that the company practices what it preaches. You could say the brand has a pulse.

How they're doing it:

  • Uses bold messaging that speaks to "you" and not about "we"
  • Little to no industry jargon
  • Consistent and striking brand look and feel
  • Unique and contextual images that go beyond what they're trying to define
  • Original website design that is hyper visual
  • Downloadable content and clear CTAs that drive interaction

As you can see, big brands with big budgets aren't the gatekeepers of differentiation. In fact, it's easier to stand out if you're a smaller business that is personable, agile and not afraid to make mistakes. Your biggest market disrupters — the Airbnbs and Ubers of your industry — only got to where they are today by proving they were different from the rest.

So, to get noticed, you need to figure out what makes your business stand out. Then use that "special sauce" to elevate your brand. Our eight steps and these five examples are here to inspire your own brand differentiation strategy.

A final thought: We said earlier that brand differentiation is how you get the lion's share of buyer attention. But there's no denying that being different feels like a risk. Change invites criticism. It's an untested path. Nevertheless, you must be brave as you go on this journey, because it is a necessary one. In other words, be the lion. Be fearless.

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Originally published Jan 23, 2023 7:00:00 AM, updated June 12 2024