This is the fifth article in a small series of punches surrounding April Dunford's Obviously Awesome! and how good positioning relates to good branding. Please read the first article, second article, third article, and fourth article before jumping into this one.
You know what the alternatives are, you know the special things that make your startup unique, you've established what makes that valuable, and you know who finds it the most valuable. Now, what frame of reference can you give to customers that will help them understand who you are?
This is accomplished through establishing a market category. For example, an automobile is a specific market, motorcycles are another. If you say your startup is going to be an automobile, it is assumed that it will be some kind of four-wheeled transportation. If a motorcycle, it is assumed it will be two-wheeled.
Same thing applies to software. If you are building out a creative software, it's assumed it will be capable of creating artwork digitally. Or if you were creating a video conferencing platform, it'd be assumed you could do something like connect with others via teleconference.
Why does this matter? Because it's important to make sure you don't allow for false assumptions. A famous mash of market category explanation is "it's like Uber, but for (blank)." What does that mean? It means that whatever you're building is going to have something to do with transportation, the shared economic model, and probably be app based, right?
When you repeat those assumptions to startup founders, you frequently get a response similar to, "well, kinda."
Ouch. Bad move. Now you've got a bigger problem. Now you have to combat assumptions and pay close attention to fix them.
At its core, market categories and choosing to associate your company with one is done to make your marketing easier. This happens because, when done right, those assumptions allow you to cut straight to the differentiating pieces of your startup rather than trying to explain what it is.
What does this have to do with branding?
I'd guess the biggest impact this has on branding is the ability to see what assumptions are already in place about the emotional value of the category. The companies in each market category have stigmas, jargon, and they tend to adopt similar brand personalities. You have the opportunity to break those assumptions and create a unique personality.
One company that comes to mind is Liquid Death, who blew past expectation when they took a death-metal inspired, brewery-like approach to selling water. They entered a crowded market with few companies straying from a fresh, clean, and renewing vibe. We know what it is, water, and because of the market category we are able to ascertain what separates it from the rest of the herd.
I was shopping at Smart and Final yesterday. While standing in line, I looked down at the placements stickers for social distancing. They said two things: "please stay six feet apart," and "we know you have many options, thank you for choosing us."
Next, when I was in line, the cashiers had done their job so well that they had eliminated a lengthy line entirely. Their manager came out and congratulated his team.
What's the big deal?
For one, this store took things that seem small and superfluous and made them something special. This could also be done with the welcome letter for a newsletter subscription, or cards sent to say thank you to clients, or phraseology around being open or closed. The point is that they put an authentic spin on it to make it memorable and relevant to this brand, when they could have just passed over it without much care.
The devil and the angels are in the details.
You choose who it is.
Everyone loves ice cream, but getting people to agree on a flavor is difficult. You gauge a room of people to see what they want and no one will seem to agree. Especially if someone suggests mint and chip.
My guess is that most people are indifferent, but there are those who vehemently oppose the flavor with everything they've got. Hell, someone even wrote an article on how terrible is it.
Here's the thing though:
One of my closest friends absolutely LOVES mint and chip ice cream. It's her favorite, she will go out of her way to get it and she'd happily argue with the author of that article about why it's a good choice.
Branding a startup works the same way. Some people will love it, some will not. You have to be ok without pleasing everyone.