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How to differentiate

Clear & useful branding tips.

You’re branding your business & all the advice seems to boil down to one simple message: “Be different!”. And that’s great advice, you definitely need to differentiate your brand from your competitors. But be careful, the drive to be as different as possible is something that leads to a pretty common mistake: to be so distinctive & so different that your brand no longer looks like it’s a part of its category, and that can be bad for business.
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Stuart Ross
September 11, 2021
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You’re branding your business & all the advice seems to boil down to one simple message:
“Be different!”

And that’s great advice, you definitely need to differentiate your brand from your competitors.
But be careful, the drive to be as different as possible is something that leads to a pretty common mistake: to be so distinctive & so different that your brand no longer looks like it’s a part of its category, and that can be bad for business.

What’s a category?

Simple, your brand category is the type of product or service you provide.
Some categories could be:


• Instant Coffee
• Laptop Computers
• Branding Agencies


Anything that can be sold as a product or service will fit into a category. And within each category, there are subcategories:


1. Fast food
1.1. Healthy fast food
1.1.1. Healthy, vegan fast food….

Each of these sub-categories will have a distinctive look and feel that customers will recognise: subtle cues that let people know what type of product they’re looking at. And even though consumers won’t always be aware of these cues, they are looking for them.

If you want to sell your products or services to people then it’s important to hit the right category cues that let them know you’re selling what they’re looking for.

Let’s take an example:

You’re starting a wellness brand, and you want to sell herbal teas. You do your market research, and notice that all the other wellness brands basically look the same: similar typography, similar graphics & logos, even the copy is similar!
You don’t want to just look the same as all the others, right?
So, you and the designers work on something radically different, and you produce a brand that looks completely different to ALL the other wellness brands.
It looks more like the sort of branding you’d associate with an energy drink! It’s creative & original. Good job! You’ll stand out now, right?

Maybe not.

The Problem With Being Too Different

When people buy wellness products, they expect them to look like wellness products. If people are in a rush, not paying full attention, they look for certain category cues (sometimes known as category indicators): these can be colour schemes, packaging shapes, typography… anything normally associated with that category.  
And if you don’t hit these category indicators, whatever they are, consumers might not recognise what you’re selling. That’s a problem. Instead of standing out, you’ll end up not catching their eye at all, because you don't look like what they’re looking for.

Identifying Your Category Cues

One of the first steps you should take when branding or rebranding is understanding your category & subcategories, and what the key category cues are. There are lots of great tools to do this:
Market research: what do the successful brands in this category have in common.
Interviews: speak to your clients & understand what they find important within that category. What do they expect to see when they look for that particular product or service?
Testing: once you’ve got some ideas & wireframes, show them to people! Make sure they don’t just like it, they know what it is.
 

The Take Home

Be original, be creative, stand out, but remember that when people want to buy herbal tea, they aren’t looking for a can of Red Bull.