The beauty of being literate is that it opens up the door to improve... always. That being said, a lot of startup founders and creatives overlook the fact that marketing masters and branding savants have put their thoughts on paper for the whole world to access. When it comes to differentiation and being rebellious, these are my top three choices:
Zag by Marty Neumeier
Neumeier is the granddaddy of all branding brooks. His cornerstone guide, The Brand Gap, set the record straight on what branding actually is and why it matters in business. He followed up with Zag to hyper-focus on differentiation. The significance of Zag lies in the step-by-step structure that walks readers through how to be different. Granted, he does not dive extremely deep into every step (i.e. crafting a logo or a name), but you'd be foolish not to follow the principles listed in these pages.
Positioning by Ries and Trout
An oldie, but a goodie. Nearly every 21st century marketing book I've read has referenced Ries and Trout's strategies within Positioning. A word of caution, this book is super heady and can seem boring at times, but the examples provided from actual companies within this book are eternally applicable. Expect to learn a lot of great terminology and systemized thinking that will explain all of the marketing efforts you see everyday.
This is Marketing by Seth Godin
This was the first Seth Godin book I had ever read, needless to say it did not disappoint and I rated it as one of my top five books read in 2019. Marketing has almost become synonymous with spammed advertising, clickbait laden emails, and down right annoying. Seth's definitions of service-oriented marketing and the frameworks for niching down are the most clear and articulated I've ever seen. Furthermore, he uses real-world examples to demonstrate how it is the most generous brands that win, not the ones with the sexiest ads or the most keywords.
If you plan on having an element of your brand identity for a long time, say your name or your logo, it's imperative to research and make sure it will stand the test of time. Reason being that you want names and logos to be around for a while. You shouldn't push out these elements unless you're prepared to have them stick around for years.
However, when it comes to items that can (and should) adapt, your goal is to move fast, do good work, and change as needed. Pretty much everything your customer comes into contact with like your website, collateral, software, etc is going to adapt with technology and alongside user testing. In this case, make good stuff, test, and iterate.
My mom is a sales rep who works with pet store retailers. Some small and some large. She told me recently that a store she visits has over 6400 items on sale. 6400!
But that means they sell a lot of stuff, right? They probably need all of those items. Still, my curiosity wasn't satisfied. I asked, "why sell so many?"
Apparently people are more picky about their dog's food being gluten-free, paleo, with/without certain ingredients than most people are with their own nutrition. In short, they are trying to please everyone by having all of those needs met. No matter what pet you have, no matter what its needs are, they are trying to sell it.
I can't know for certain, but I'd imagine 80% of their sales comes from 20% (or less) of those 6400 products.
When Steve Jobs returned to Apple in 1997, the first thing he did was strip away 70% of Apple's products and got them focusing on what really mattered. Surprisingly, despite getting rid of a bunch of products, Apple turned its first quarterly profit the following January (see timeline for comparison). Apple didn't even have 50 products and they still struggled to keep their head above water. Can you imagine the crippling weight of 6400 products?
In-N-Out, the most successful burger chain on the west coast, sells cheeseburgers (with varying amounts of meat/cheese), french fries, shakes, and soft drinks. Each store does about $4.5M in annual sales and they have over 300 across the country. When people come to In-N-Out asking for a change to a menu item, they say "sorry, this isn't for you."
By turning away some people, they have a streamlined business offering and they become known for it. It exudes confidence and even people who can't or won't eat a cheeseburger respect that. The same could be said of Apple and people who want to change their offerings.
In the words of Seth Godin, have the courage to say, "this is not for you, but it is for someone who believes this."