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Is your brand really a unicorn?

Your brand will not thrive in a sea of sameness. We live in a cultural time where uniqueness is sought out, valued, and even celebrated. Brands today are surrounded by imposters–self-proclaimed unicorns dancing in a field of glittery horses with wings wearing cones on their foreheads. Yes, many say they are unique. But if they’re basically defining their “specialness” as commodity product attributes rather than distinctive, meaningful customer benefits, then they’re not creating a unique space in anyone’s mind except their own. Brand awareness, party of one.

Brands need to stop saying that they’re authentic and simply BE themselves.

Authenticity is in how you act, not just what you say. Brands can and should act like humans. The more that a brand reflects its beliefs and acts in a way that reflects those beliefs, the more believable they are to real human beings.

Building BRAND VALUE starts within your organization. Your brand is derived from three things:

(1) Knowing who you are;

(2) Having a clear vision for who you want to be; and

(3) Understanding who people perceive you to be.

Many marketers make the mistake of only paying mind to the first two, with the intent of changing market perceptions by changing their marketing messages. A single social media post or campaign can have a short term effect (it can draw attention positively or negatively, or even confuse people if it seems out of character for the brand), but vision, planning, and consistency is what keeps a brand building momentum.

Insights from what consumers are saying about your brand can be just the “health check” your brand needs to stay self-aware.

Brand truth begins with self-awareness of your equity

Recently, we conducted brand equity research and analysis for a prestigious private day school. They were well aware of their strengths but were seeking insights into how their brand was perceived by parents in the local market. Ironically, as we started our study, our client acknowledged that their brand may have the perception of being the local school for unique kids… welcoming the ones who seemingly “don’t fit in” at other schools… maybe even (candidly) the perception of the island of mis-fit toys. (Note: This brand is an elite private day school with many students who matriculate to prestigious universities… not a school equipped to specialize in helping kids with special needs or disabilities).

As a brand, unique wasn’t a word they were entirely comfortable using.

Are they progressive? In their philosophy and methodology, yes. Liberal? Maybe, but that’s a culturally polarizing word. Alternative? Sounds like ’80s music.

We quickly discovered that certain words and specific language mattered… to those who understand the brand and to those who don’t.

Our goal was to learn precisely how they were perceived, both by those who knew them and those who didn’t.

Competitive research revealed that other brands were starting to market themselves using similar language in their messaging — yet educational consultants, professionals, and influencers in the industry described a combination of attributes that aligned with shifting mindsets and emerging trends. Parent surveys revealed that the school held a distinct spot in their minds, albeit an outdated one. Pool-side conversations (aka word-of-mouth in the South) kept a change in perception arguably “in check.”

It was time to clear up the confusion. After an in-depth market study and formal and informal interviews, their “uniqueness” was more clear than originally thought.

Our advice: boldly own who you are as a brand. Lean into it, live up to it, and transparently communicate it. Consistently reinforce it with brand actions.

Can it be this simple? If the shoe fits, wear it.

Successful brands take calculated risks. In a culture where taking a stand (a stand on anything) takes courage and conviction, it can polarize people away from you or attract people to you–not just because of your product or service, but because of who you are and what you’re about. Within the complexities of the media and data that pummels them, people have become adept at parsing this onslaught to make decisions, selecting companies and brands that align with their values.

Being bold and transparent shouldn’t be considered a gutsy move if it articulates your core purpose and reflects the values that are important to your brand.

Our private day school client understood that defining (or in their case, redefining) their brand is a constant evolution. They also appreciated the wisdom in remaining on top of their brand self-awareness and embracing their brand truth without fear of “losing customers.” Not every brand is for everyone… brands that try to succeed by being “all things to all people” proliferate commoditization. Brands that are willing to take risks evolve faster and stay relevant, assuming that courage and innovation is a part of their brand DNA. Knowing your brand truth will set your brand free (to innovate, to grow, to evolve, etc.).

“This above all; to thine own self be true.” –William Shakespeare, as spoken by Polonius in Hamlet, circa 1601

Advice from four centuries ago… the dawn of unicorns? How about something more culturally relevant:

“Be yourself, no matter what they say…” (Keep repeating that line.)
— Gordon Sumner, aka Sting, from An Englishman in New York, circa 1988

Ah, the ’80s… a decade that did give us a lot of inspiration for individuality. (Boy George, Cyndi Lauper, Prince, Madonna… all icons for standing out during the symphony of a unique musical era.)

Embrace the humanity of your brand, with all its unique qualities, idiosyncrasies, and distinct attributes. People will see how your brand benefits them more clearly if you do. A brand that is true to its beliefs and purpose is more attractive to people who believe and support that purpose. These brands establish more meaningful engagement with their base followers and create a more lasting brand relationship with them. This builds brand affinity, earns loyalty, and gets the most word-of-mouth recommendations, arguably the most convincing way to attract and win people over.

Finding your uniqueness takes exploration and an open mind.

Surveys, interviews, market observations and social listening are just a few ways to assess brand equity. Not every brand is a unicorn, but identifying your brand attributes is the first step. Historically, unicorns have been symbolically associated with gentleness, power, purity, innocence, and even hope. Now, it seems to have migrated from headbands, pajamas, and birthday cakes to proliferate TV, films, and even corporate job listings. For kids, they are ubiquitous. For brands, they are that “magical sparkle” that is elusive, yet achievable by those who truly know themselves and their brand.

Have you identified your Brand’s uniqueness?

Do you know who you are as a brand, with a clear vision for who you want to be? Do you know how your brand is perceived? Do you need help discovering it? Oftentimes, it takes a third party to intervene to provide clarity, functioning as a “brand whisperer” to help brands and organizations become more self-aware. By focusing first on your core purpose, and then articulating your promise, products, positioning and personality, this path will lead to creating a better narrative. This will distinguish your brand, your company, and your culture from all the other “sparkly unicorns” out there.

Anne Oller
Creative Strategy Director at Planet Studio. Create lasting relationships between brands and people.