What do brands like HubSpot and Salesforce have in common? They achieved success during a time when entering the market was a long and complex process.
Nowadays, better financing options and lower development costs means anyone can replicate the same features that helped those brands to stand out.
While differentiation is harder than ever, one method that savvy founders and marketing leaders are prioritizing is brand building. Once established, brand is an intangible “asset” that only your business has access to.
In this article, we’ll dissect the problem with following the legacy B2B playbook, practical advice on finding your space in the market, and real-world examples to build your brand today.
A 2020 survey conducted by Crayon revealed that 91% of competitive intelligence professionals had seen increased competition in recent years. Around 59% of the respondents reported that their market was “much more competitive.”
Competition is fiercer because the barrier to entry has never been lower. Founders can secure business loans through digital providers like Lendio, and customer research is democratic thanks to social media and tools like Typeform.
These factors are part of the reason new business applications in the U.S. have more than doubled since 2006, according to Census data.
Building a product and taking it to market is easy. If what you’re selling is anything other than a first-of-its-kind innovation, the battle really begins when facing up to entrenched market leaders who have a first-mover advantage.
At Wynter, we define the “consideration set” as the brands that live rent free for a particular solution or category within the minds of our buyers. For example, when you think about email marketing tools, it’s likely that Mailchimp, ActiveCampaign, or ConvertKit come to mind.
Even in the face of intense competition, they can maintain or grow their market share. The benefits they receive from their position can be summarized by the maxim: “The better known you are, the better known you become.”
The exponential effects of referrals makes their popularity stable. They’re propelled by recommendations based on first-hand experience and reputation alone.
Extending this concept to its extreme conclusion, you reach genericization. This is when a product or service is so ubiquitously associated with its market, it begins to embody it in popular language. Genericization is why we all say “Google it” instead of “look it up online.”
Those in the consideration set are also rewarded by the effects of The Law of Double Jeopardy. This law states that brands with more market share have more buyers, and these buyers are more loyal. Its implication is that increasing market penetration, not increasing brand loyalty, is the key to growth. Loyalty follows market share.
The traditional methods of differentiation are replicable. A unique product feature can easily be emulated or pricing superiority can be undercut.
Unless you’re building a product that is authentically innovative—creating a new category in the sector and gaining first-mover advantage—you will only stand out based on traditional points of differentiation, such as a collection of features, for so long. Even brands with first-mover advantage can’t escape this fact.
Even first-movers eventually face the existential threat of competitors. Just look at Tesla’s diminishing share in the EV market they’ve dominated for so long.
As soon as competitors figured out how to effectively emulate their product’s success, they began to lose market share. There is no such thing as a “long-term moat” based on innovation. Not without brand.
There are two types of brand competition:
Brand preference exists in established markets, where the goal is to outcompete and enter the consideration set. Establishing brand preference involves incremental improvements—making your product better or more affordable—and engaging in significant brand marketing efforts.
Brand relevance is the result of (substantial) innovation. It describes the point a business reaches after developing a product so new or different that competitors are simply not relevant.
In the brand preference game, you’re forced to face off against businesses with loyal consumers. With brand relevance, you create the consideration set until other brands enter the market.
Winning through brand relevance is the preferable option. By capitalizing on an emerging sub-category and quickly becoming the biggest player, you’re at a significant advantage.
Unfortunately, innovation doesn’t come easily. Unless you can create a new sub-category, winning on brand preference might be the better choice.
Unlike traditional differentiation methods, brand is too nuanced to replicate. Facets like values, visual identity, and voice can be combined in unique ways to generate an authentic result.
Buffer’s success with brand-building content marketing is a great example of this. Struggling to make an impact in their market, they overhauled their strategy to attract industry influencers rather than the end customer.
The focus of their blog went from providing advice on how to do well on social media to topics like why we have our best ideas in the shower.
This strategic shift made Buffer a more interesting brand, effectively differentiated from competitors who were still writing exclusively about social media management. By creating content that resonated with these influencers, they drove social shares and significantly increased their audience.
Unique and high-quality brand creative can also help to make an emotional connection with your customer. Mailchimp’s award-winning “Did you mean Mailchimp?” campaign showcases the effect good creative can have:
The campaign used the power of the unexpected. Media assets including short films, fake business sites, and music generators targeted creative industries, which is where Mailchimp’s customers are.
The mystery the campaign elicits, combined with outstanding visuals and creative copywriting, helped Mailchimp generate over $3.5M in earned media value and drove 67 million organic searches.
Each impression attracted Mailchimp’s ideal customer. It also differentiated Mailchimp by associating the brand with a creative quality no-one else in the sector could match.
There are countless approaches to leveraging brand and increasing your share of the market. Focusing on the following five gives you the best chance of breaking into the consideration set.
Messaging is critical for brand building and a key factor in creating a differentiated brand.
The most effective messaging is clear, concise, and compelling. But it must also establish a strong and cohesive narrative that addresses a problem or shift in the market that nobody else is talking about.
Mailchimp is the top-of-mind brand for businesses looking for a generalist email marketing platform. Any startup looking to take their place faces an uphill battle. However, this means there’s opportunities for non-generalists to enter the field.
That’s what ConvertKit has done by, targeting solo-creators, bloggers, and YouTubers. They carved out a niche for themselves by addressing a growing sector, creating a new consideration set, and securing their place in it.
Their homepage copy instantly expresses what makes them different, directly calling out the types of creators the tool is built for. It creates affinity with their audience by being clear about its purpose to deliver a tailored product. While their product is similar to Mailchimp, their brand messaging means they compete in a separate sub-category of their own making.
Emulate this approach by taking a legacy category and building vertically for a specific audience. Which of your customer segments are most underserved? For example, plenty of CRMs exist, but are there any built specifically for Airbnb hosts?
Thinking this way can help you reimagine and compete in competitive fields.
Marketing exists to get attention and generate customers. One way to achieve this goal is by throwing money at it. Buying an excess share of voice is as close to a guaranteed solution to increasing market penetration as is possible.
This approach is exemplified by brands like Monday.com and Wix, who broke into extremely competitive and well-developed sectors with outsized marketing budgets. They paid for momentum and now sit firmly in their respective consideration sets, reaping all the benefits that come with that position.
Monday.com alone have amassed millions of views across several of their video YouTube ads:
This paid media push has helped Monday.com become a market leader in the project management space, sitting in the consideration set beside the likes of Asana.
If you have the capital to fuel it, paid media can be an amplifier for brand building. However, it should only be used as part of a cohesive strategy. Without a strong message, you’re likely to burn through your ad budget without seeing results.
Focus on your message first. Test it with your audience to ensure that it resonates and amplify the winner with paid media.
It takes an average of six to eight distinct touchpoints with a brand before a consumer converts. Your content strategy must address customer needs at every stage of the buying journey, and do so across a range of channels.
For example, Ahrefs utilizes a comprehensive hub of how-to content which delivers authentic advice to marketers. through organic channels. Each article is relevant to their product, presenting a conversion opportunity with every blog post.
By ranking for diverse search queries, Ahrefs position themselves as a valuable resource to SEO beginners and veterans alike.
Their widespread organic search presence is also reinforced by strong social media advertising, engagement with communities on Reddit, and collaboration with influencers in the sector.
Mailshake, a sales prospecting software business, spent six months writing a uniquely comprehensive long-form guide to cold email outreach. This huge investment in content resulted in 590 conversions and six figures in revenue, while also positioning the brand as an authority in the sector.
Using storytelling in marketing creates an emotional connection with audiences. People will remember a good story over a sales pitch.
The same is true of brand engagement on social media. The more engaged your audience is, the more likely you’ll be top-of-mind for them.
Take HP’s campaign, The Wolf. Despite HP being an industry behemoth, it’s the perfect example of engaging an audience using visual storytelling.
The campaign involved a series of dramatic videos centering around the importance of cybersecurity:
It received huge attention on release in 2017, and positioned HP as a top-of-mind brand for cyber-security products.
Learning from this example, consider what stories your brand needs to tell to achieve a differentiated position in the market. Then figure out the most interesting way to tell them.
Up to 45% of a business’s reputation can be attributed to the reputation of its founder. Establishing and building a founder brand is one of the most overlooked methods of generating attention.
Rand Fishkin, the founder of Moz and SparkToro, showcases the power of this approach. He started by engaging with Moz’s target market through an educational series, Whiteboard Fridays, providing value, building a reputation, and contributing to his business’s growth.
He later released an autobiographical book, Lost & Founder, which further grew his personal brand and helped push his Twitter following to almost 500,000 followers. SparkToro gets more attention partly as a natural by-product of his popularity.
There’s a lot to learn from businesses that have successfully broken into crowded markets using brand differentiation.
The odds may seem stacked against you, with market leaders in the consideration set having momentum and scale on their side—but brand is a powerful tool that can deliver outsized returns.
Create a message that resonates and serves your audience in a way your competitors don’t. That’s how you become a preferred vendor in the eyes of your customers.