Jerry McLaughlin: Breaking the rules

Jerry McLaughlin

Jerry McLaughlin, CEO,

Anybody who survived the fifth grade understands the soul of branding. Branding is about being different — and just like in a fifth-grade class, there are many ways for a brand to be different.

In my fifth grade class the most popular boy was Gary. He was good looking, confident and our best athlete. He was the best kind of different — for the fifth grade. There was another boy who wasn’t any of those. In fact, though he was at least modestly good looking then, he was nearly the opposite of confident and athletic. So he was different too, but not in a way to be envied.

Our class also had its smart kid, its funny kid, its short kid and its weird kid. Which one was I? I’ll leave that to your imagination. But all of us, intentionally or not, had personal brands.

Branding starts with differentiation. This can be almost anything, as long as it sets your brand apart. Maybe your product is made from superior ingredients — juice made from organic fruit, or socks woven from cashmere. Maybe your product is made for a special demographic — a deodorant for women who wear black dresses or cigarettes for independent men. Maybe your product was designed by someone who is believed to have a superior aesthetic sense — a shirt by Ralph or shoes by Ferragamo.

There are no rules about the basis on which you differentiate your brand. Many of the best-known examples are as different as they are famous. For instance, when all the major U.S. carmakers were packing their products with power and chrome, Bill Bernbach decided to play up the Volkswagen’s personality. David Ogilvy differentiated Hawthorne shirts not by changing the product, but by telling us what kind of man wore them.

Still, not all bases of differentiation are equally valuable. Some, for example, seem to last longer than others. Food brands may top this list with century-old winners such as Coca-Cola, Wrigley, Heinz and Hershey’s. It seems that we get fairly attached to our opinions about our taste preferences. Pepsi may win the blind taste tests, but they don’t win many converts. Coke’s differentiation is too well established in our minds.

Other products are differentiated on sheer performance. These tend to last from a few years to a few decades, depending on the rate of product innovation. Readers old enough to remember taking pictures on film may remember dropping it off for development at Fotomat — once a 4,000-plus chain of parking lot kiosks where rolls of films could be dropped off one day and printed photographs picked up the next. One-hour photofinishing eventually ended the Fotomat run before digital technology killed film and film developing almost altogether. Fotomat was a well-differentiated brand, but its power was ultimately at the mercy of technological progress.

Each type of differentiation has its advantages and disadvantages. The most important thing is to have one — to be unique in a way that creates a customer preference for your product or service. If you can think of more than one way to stand out, great. But consider which will be easiest to keep to yourself and to keep for a long time. Then trumpet your point of differentiation from the rooftops, so that customers come to associate it with your brand.

There is no single right way to differentiate brands. But there is almost certainly a way that works best for you.

Jerry McLaughlin is CEO of, the world’s largest and lowest-priced online promotional products company. Reach him at [email protected]