Branding 101: Don’t Waste Time Trying to Be Better Than Your Competition

Everyone struggles at least a little to figure out who they really are.

Knowing thyself is tougher than it sounds – it can take years of self-discovery and reflection! But when it comes to knowing your brand, you just don’t have that kind of time. (Sorry, but you can’t figure this out by pulling an Eat, Pray, Love.)

You’ve gotta dig in and do some soul searching – so where do you start? Branding 101.

Forget about the industry standard

Unless you’re just one of those businesses that does something literally no other business in the world does, you have to keep other brands in mind when you’re finding your own identity.

That doesn’t mean you should do what those other brands do.

It can actually mean the exact opposite! Following in the footsteps of other brands in your industry is tempting. It reinforces the idea of doing the same thing as the other guys, but better. Problem is, when a bunch of businesses in the same industry have similar branding, they all kind of start to look the same.

Don’t try to be the-same-but-better. Be different.

Break your industry’s rules – the more you think you can’t or shouldn’t do something, the more impact it will have when you do.

Look at Planet Fitness, the health club franchise that skyrocketed to popularity in the United States by declaring itself radically different from the rest of its industry. Instead of catering toward the same small percentage of self-described fitness fanatics that other gyms try to attract, Planet Fitness focuses on attracting members who are more interested in a non-intimidating environment, and it shows in their branding. (They actually have a legit registered trademark on the phrase “Judgement Free Zone.”)

Standing out from your industry does have limitations – and you don’t want your brand to feel cheap or gimmicky. (Sorry, but being the wacky divorce lawyer may make you stand out in a not-so-good way.) If you can find even a small way in which you’re different from the other guys, though, you can use it as the framework for your brand. Worry less about being better, and focus on just being you.

Speaking of being you, remember…

Your personality is your brand (and vice versa)

Every brand has a personality.

When you’re struggling to define your own brand, then, start simple – what adjectives would you use to describe it?

For example, the gym we looked at earlier might be described as:

  • Welcoming
  • Non-judgemental
  • Unpretentious
  • Encouraging

They’re words that make you feel safe, and they’re also words that could just as easily describe a person, rather than a thing.

Don’t think of a brand as what you do or even who you do it for – think of it as who you are.

Here’s an example of two brands that target people with similar interests, but each with their own unique personalities.

Both The Middle Finger Project and Marie Forleo are websites for people living the independent entrepreneur lifestyle – people who want to be amazing at creating, building, and operating a business of their own.

Despite the similarities in their subject matter, though, these sites have personalities that are distinctly different from each other.

The Middle Finger Project and Marie Forleo Branding 101
Homepages for The Middle Finger Project (left) and Marie Forleo (right)

How do two businesses targeting a lot of the same people and tackling a lot of the same issues stand out from each other?

Let’s take a look at their personalities. What are the adjectives you’d use to describe these brands?

For The Middle Finger Project, you might use adjectives like:

  • Unapologetic
  • Audacious
  • Outspoken
  • Sarcastic

Marie Forleo, on the other hand, may evoke descriptions more like:

  • Cheerful
  • Goofy
  • Positive
  • Inoffensive

Both brands are built around a personality, and those personalities are very different – and remember, being different can be a lot more valuable than trying to be the-same-but-better. (Because in the end, both of these websites are pretty awesome.)

Think about your own personality, and what ideals you want your brand to represent. Start small. Start with your adjectives, and go from there.

And when you do, there’s something you really need to keep in mind:

Those shoes had better fit

Your brand’s personality doesn’t have to be the exact same as your personality, but it should definitely be true to parts of your personality.

Injecting yourself into your brand doesn’t just keep you honest – it keeps you sane.

The cynical thing to do would be to engineer a brand personality you think will just be the most appealing, whether or not you actually identify or even agree with it. (AKA, the “Oh yeah, those suckers are gonna eat this up” approach.)

The better approach is to focus on what feels natural, and what you actually believe. The infamous Denny’s Tumblr, for example, wasn’t the result of focus group testing or data analyzing – it became successful because its manager used it as a brand the same way she would as an everyday user.



Your personality has a hundred different sides – choose the ones you want your brand to embrace, and work with them. If it doesn’t feel “right” or natural, take that as a sign – you’re going to be wearing these shoes for a long time, so you’d better be sure that they fit.

Everything is an opportunity to reinforce your brand – EVERYTHING

Let’s say you figure out what sort of personality you might like for your brand. You understand the other brands in your industry, you know what makes you different, and you’re ready to scream it from the mountaintops.

What do you actually DO with your brand identity?

(Hint: Actually screaming it from the mountaintops is not recommended.)

Some ways of expressing your brand identity are pretty obvious. The copy on your website, the look of your logo, and the way you speak on social media, for example, are kind of the usual suspects when you’re looking for places to express your identity.

Sometimes, though, it’s the unusual suspects that can make all the difference.

Everything your business does – no matter how small or mundane – gives you an opportunity.

For example, look at the onboarding process for the dating website OkCupid. (That is, if you haven’t seen it already, killer.)

OkCupid Screenshot
Notation by UserOnboard: Source: UserOnboard https://www.useronboard.com/how-okcupid-onboards-new-users/

OkCupid injects personality all throughout what would normally be a long and tedious process, so by the time you’re actually inside the network and finding your next main squeeze, you’re feeling pretty motivated. (Instead of feeling bored out of your skull.)

We do the same thing here at Edgar.

We look at every piece of copy we write, from our job listings to our error messages, and find ways to make them more fun – which is exactly in line with our brand.

Don’t pass up an opportunity to reinforce your branding – no matter how small!

This is another one of those times when it can pay to break the rules.

Don’t worry about what you might think you’re “allowed” to do. If you want to be funny when you’re asking someone for their credit card details, be funny. If you want to send someone a haiku in a confirmation email, then send that haiku! Perform your brand’s identity whenever you can, wherever you can, and you’ll only make it stronger.

Getting to know yourself isn’t always easy

Remember that your brand is who you are – and branding can seem hard because knowing who you are is hard!

The only real trick is to embrace the things that make you unique, and to do it as often as you want without worrying about the other guys out there. When you’re okay with being different – instead of always trying to be better – you just might find that knowing yourself isn’t as hard as it once seemed!

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