What Are You Willing to Give Up?

By Ray Silverstein

for The Business Journal (Phoenix)


When it comes to branding a small business, “one size fits all” is not a good approach.  When you try to be all things to all people, you generally wind up being nothing to everyone.


There’s a dirty little secret behind the “one size fits all” catch-all: one size doesn’t really fit anyone particularly well.


It’s not enough to simply brand your business. A key component of branding is differentiation—i.e., setting yourself apart from your competition.


When you create a corporate branding statement, you carve out your company’s identity. You paint a picture of how you’d like your company to be perceived. The problem is, most of your competitors are probably painting a similar picture.


You need to distinguish your company from theirs. A branding statement tells your prospective customers: this is why you should buy from us!


A branding statement that incorporates differentiation says: this is why YOU should buy from us…instead of them! It speaks to your organization’s individual strengths, which means your message will resonate more strongly with specific markets. But alas, not to everyone. And that’s how it should be.


When you differentiate, you stake out a specific position, stated within narrow perimeters. If your message is too broad, it won’t have any impact. However, in the course of stating who you are, you also define who you aren’t. That’s means giving something up.     


Everyone wants to be the company that provides the best service to everyone, makes the best products for everyone, has the all-around best creative ideas, and that utilizes the best technology 100% of the time. But that’s not a realistic message, and it doesn’t translate well.


Take my company, PRO. PRO (President's Resource Organization) provides peer advisory boards for small business owners and managers. It’s a place where entrepreneurs can share knowledge, problems, and resources.


When I founded PRO way back when, I could have taken the position that PRO operates peer advisory boards…period. But I deliberately excluded the companies with over 250 employees. Doing so allowed me to cater to the customer I knew best: the small business owner.


Only then could I develop a product—and a message—that specifically addresses the needs of my target. Instead of limiting me, excluding those other business sectors actually freed me to become a small business specialist. This gives me a more compelling story to tell, while providing with a more defined target for my marketing efforts. And the better you target your audience, the more likely you are to hit it.


Never take the same differentiation approach as your competitor. If you adopt your competitor’s position, you only reinforce its strengths instead of defining your own. You need to find your own niche.


Another example: in the car rental universe, Hertz, the largest player, positions itself as the industry leader. Avis, on the other hand, has taken a different approach. It only acknowledges Hertz’ branding position but turn it to Avis’ advantage. The tagline says it all—“We Try Harder®.” The unspoken sub-text is: we try harder than our smug, complacent competitor, who takes your business for granted. 


Within a year of launching that tagline, Avis went from an unprofitable minor player to a profitable heavy-hitter in the car rental world.


You can do the same. If your competition has already staked out an enviable position, find another one. In fact, subtly playing off your competition’s positioning could really zip up your branding efforts.


On the other hand, if your competitors have not yet attempted differentiation—if they are  still trying to be everything to everyone—you have “dibs” on whatever you choose.


Perhaps your company has some advantages that naturally appeal to a certain type of customer. (You undoubtedly already know who they are; you just need to commit to targeting them more directly.) Or perhaps a particular market sector offers greater opportunity. Who are these customers, and what the best way to reach them?


As your mom always told you, “just be yourself.” She also told you not to follow the crowd by jumping off the Brooklyn Bridge. Turn out, your mom is very wise. 


Differentiating your business means finding your own strengths and not running with the crowd. And it’s a smart thing to do. Because it’s better to mean something to someone than to mean nothing to everyone.




Ray Silverstein is president of PRO:  President’s Resource Organization, a network of entrepreneurial peer advisory groups in Phoenix and Chicago. The author of “The Best Secrets of Great Small Businesses” and a columnist for Entrepreneur Magazine online, Ray may be reached at 1-800-818-0150 or