(Re)Think Different

You might remember this: in the Mad Men episode “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” Lucky Strike cigarettes had a problem. A change in government regulation meant they could no longer advertise their product as “safe.”

What could they say now? How could they differentiate a standard cigarette from another standard cigarette, without making an illegal or inaccurate claim?

While the products are, of course, very different, these questions are familiar to our clients in regulated industries like health insurance. When your product offering is strongly regulated and your marketing is subject to government approval or rejection, how do you differentiate your brand from your competitors, who are subject to the same rules?

The Mad Men Answer

Don Draper’s insight is, indeed, one angle—though a hard one to use in 2018. While Lucky Strikes were not the only cigarettes that were toasted, they were the first to put a large advertising spend behind that as a differentiator. Any competitors crying “we’re toasted too!” couldn’t be in the market with that message for weeks or months, and then would look like copycats.

But in a connected world, where a vigilant Twitter army waits to expose every corporation’s secrets on a daily basis, “It’s Toasted” might not survive a single 24-hour period.

How can modern, regulated brands identify a sustainable point of differentiation? Here are three tried-and-true techniques you and your agency partners should be considering.

1. Tell Your Origin Story

One thing no competitor shares is the story of why your brand exists. And that story is deeply connected with your company’s mission and vision. From the garage where Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak started Apple to Blake Mycoskie’s 2006 Argentina trip inspiring him to create TOMS shoes, your founders’ passion, and the problem they wanted to solve, can stand alone in your customers’ mind—and give them a reason to believe in your vision.

2. Tell Your Customers’ Stories

Perhaps even more captivating than your own story is the story of your customers: how you made their life better, how your customer service agent made their day, or why they believe you’re the best choice for their friends. This kind of authentic, relatable storytelling will help potential new customers see—and feel—they can be connected to a like family of customers.

3. Forge a New Partnership

Many brands find a point of differentiation by creating a unique and powerful alliance with a complementary brand. This can lift the profiles of both companies and create a truly unique story in the mind of your consumers. Think of the symbiotic partnership between Nike and Apple in creating Nike+, or the industry-disrupting short-term partnerships Target forms with brands like Rodarte, Poketo and Victoria Beckham.

Differentiating Together

Whether you’re finding or redefining your differentiating story, it’s critical to form a partnership with an agency you trust—to help give an honest appraisal of your brand’s standing in the marketplace, and project the results of the strategies you consider.

Without an agency you trust walking alongside you, you could invest heavily into a “differentiating story” that leaves your audience yawning. Your agency partner should help you identify and evaluate new ways to look at your origin story, your customers’ stories and potential partnerships, as well as present other insights into what will make your customers choose and stay loyal to your brand.