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Branding Basics
by: Les Goss

Branding is the process by which you try to become the first business a person thinks of when they consider buying goods or services in your category. If you can "own" a word in the public's mind, you have a huge competitive advantage.
Branding is the process by which you attempt to differentiate your business from your competitors. Just as a brand will allow your horse to be recognized among the rest of the herd, so too must your business’s brand set you apart. Although your name and logo are important features of your brand, there’s a lot more to it than that.

You Must “Own” Your Category in the Minds of Your Customers

The absolute best way to create a brand is to invent a new product or service. Being first to market is a huge advantage. Coca-Cola has turned its “secret formula” into a 70% market share of cola drinks worldwide.

However, most of us run businesses in categories filled with competitors. What’s the best way for us to create a strong brand?

The secret lies in narrowing the focus of your business until you’ve created a new category you can be first in.

From Ford to BMW

Consider the auto industry. Henry Ford didn’t invent the automobile, but he was the first to combine it with an assembly line. That reduced his costs enough so that millions could afford a car. Being first with an affordable car allowed Ford to dominate the category, even though there were literally hundreds of car companies in the U.S. by 1910. That’s a powerful brand!

So how did other auto manufacturers develop successful brands? By creating new categories in the mind of the buying public. If you’re in the market for a “safe” car, Volvo is probably the first brand to pop into your mind. If you’re looking for the “ultimate driving machine,” BMW owns that category. Buyers shopping for a high-priced luxury car think Mercedes Benz.

Notice that none of these companies is trying to be all things to all people. They narrowed their focus until they had a new category they could be first in. Even though other car companies could make claims about the safety of their cars, it’s unlikely they’re going to supplant Volvo in the public’s mind. Volvo “owns” the safe car category.

Two Fast Food Examples

When Tom Monaghan owned a small pizza restaurant near a college campus, he started asking his customers what changes they would like to see in his business. Did they want a higher quality pizza? No, the quality was fine. Did they want a cheaper pizza? No, the price was fair. What they really wanted was a pizza that came to them. Thus, Domino’s Pizza created the new category of pizza delivery, and even though others offer the same service, being first allows Domino’s to enjoy a dominant share of the market.

Little Caesars saw another opportunity. If they focused on take-out pizza, they could save money on delivery and a large restaurant. That would allow them to make money even if they sold two pizzas for the price of one. Pizza. Pizza. Brilliant.

Apply These Ideas to Your Business

If you’re trying to grow your business, it might seem logical to expand your offerings, but that’s unlikely to be successful in the long run. As these few examples have shown, it’s often better to narrow your focus until you’ve created a new category you can be first in. If you’re a specialist, people will regard you as more of an expert in your field than a generalist.

Let’s say you’re a photographer. If you live in a town or city of any size, you no doubt have lots of competition. Look around for the opportunities to separate yourself from the herd. Maybe you could become known as the only one in town to call for action shots during kids’ athletic games. Or maybe you specialize in soft-focus sepia-toned photos of mother and child. Fly fishermen. Architectural details. Even though you’ve narrowed your pool of prospects, you’ve also eliminated most of your competition.

Our photographer could expand her business while maintaining focus by publishing a book, printing greeting cards and calendars, or teaching lessons, all in her specialized area.

She’ll know she’s created a powerful brand when her name is the first one to pop onto a parent’s head when they want a “hero shot” of their young soccer player.

Publicity First, Advertising Later

One of the great benefits of being first in a new category is that you become newsworthy. Newspapers and magazines, TV and radio are always looking for “something new under the sun.”

Remember Pet Rocks? This small outfit gained international coverage, all of it free, for their unique idea. Millions of Pet Rocks were sold with virtually no advertising costs.

Advertising alone is rarely enough to create a new brand, although lots of businesses try that route. Remember the Super Bowl of a few years ago when the media was filled with stories about the millions that were spent on 30-second ads? This was supposed to be the launching of several new dot com businesses and the amount of money spent to launch these brands was incredible. In spite of all that money and the creative efforts of Madison Avenue’s finest minds, those businesses failed quickly and are totally forgotten today.

A better path is the one followed by Google, the world’s most popular search engine. Google wasn’t the first search engine, but they created a new way to rank web sites that garnered them huge amounts of free publicity. I’ve never seen an ad for Google, and yet just about everyone who has surfed the web has heard of it. Just this morning our local paper ran a large article about Google’s decision not to sell shares of stock in the company yet. More free publicity, which will further boost the strength of their brand.


Focusing your business until you’ve created your own category is just one step to branding your business. An excellent resource for learning more ways to create a strong brand is the book, The 22 Immutable Laws of Branding ( by Al and Laura Ries. Next time I’ll have some specific ideas on how to brand yourself through your web site. Until then, stay focused!

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About the Author

Les Goss is President of ZebraMoon Design, Inc. To see a partial list of high-ranking web sites we've created for our clients, please visit our web site at Sign up for our free newsletter at You'll receive two issues a month on topics that should help you stay a step ahead of your competition.


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