Celebrating What a Brand is Not


In a marketplace that is flush with options and where consumers are bombarded with promises, less can be more. Complex brands need complex communications and things get murky and out of control. Take the classic Swiss Army knife that has a blade for everything, is it still a knife or has it become something else? Today as we shop at drugstores for Halloween candy, grocery stores for toys, and hamburger chains for salads, the clarity of what a brand means to us is blurred as things are added. That’s why it is refreshing to hear a brand tell us what they aren’t. Chipotle and Trader Joe’s come to mind as brands who clearly tell us what they are about by telling us what they are not about. Strategically, choosing what not to be can powerfully communicate that a brand is special and worth noticing.

And More?

But this road can be scary, and it can be difficult to stay true to the idea. I remember seeing a business in Harrisburg PA for instance with the comical name “Simply Turkey and More!” Apparently a single-minded focus on turkey was not enough to be successful, but too entrenched to abandon. This isn’t the first or the last “and more” amendment I have seen to a name. It takes nerve to stay simple and not be lured into dangerous waters by the sirens of generalism.

In the case of “Simply Turkey”, they likely needed more turkey-centric holidays to grow the business. But for many brands the move from narrow to broad is based on current success and pure opportunism. The brand is popular as a tractor and can be extended to other merchandise via licensing, or a store has traffic and can capitalize with more merchandise variety. Both of these circumstances are legitimate paths to more revenue, but need to be considered with the brand’s long-term health at the core. Short-term gains can create big brand pains down the road. This is why it is imperative to have a clear understanding of what the brand is not, make it a cultural mandate, and stick with it.

This not that

Making clear statements of what you promise not to do is a form of reductive differentiation versus the usual additive approach, and can be more uncomfortable for established brands than new ones. Making choices is more difficult than addingmore reasons a brand is better, and sometimes could strain relationships or mean walking away from sales. It forces brands to say no. CVS  not selling cigarettes is a great example. But there is no shame in saying no. We all honor unwavering focus and dedication. It is easier to understand and to reward brands that draw a line on what they will and won’t do. It makes consumers feel good about their own choices. Olympic athletes train from an early age to be exceptional at one sport with the intentional exclusion of others. In some cases, playing or training for another sport can actually be detrimental to their abilities. Distractions cost… a lot. Brands have the same risk.

Another motive for the “what we are not” approach is that Millennial’s and Gen Z consumers are attuned to personalities defined by “avoidant archetypes”- vegan, gluten free, etc. They are suspicious of accommodation and waffling brands, and brands that trade on fads and opportunism. They embrace brands that are deep versus broad: brands that are “for this… not that”.

No makes yes stronger

Clarifying your brand idea should begin with defining what you are not before focusing on what you are. Brands that clearly are not something benefit by being perceived as being more authoritative, more trustworthy, and having higher quality because it communicates passion and purpose. Of course brands have to stand for something too, but clearly defining what a brand is not is a way of providing more emphasis for what a brand is.

Bill Chidley is a Partner and Co-Founder at ChangeUp. Creating Innovating Experiences that Drive Growth. http://www.changeupinc.com

Tweet the author at @chillbidley


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