Jerry McLaughlin

Not long ago, I went to Wal-Mart with my daughter. The store had certainly changed from the days of Mr. Sam Walton. Piles of discarded clothes languished in shopping carts outside the dressing room. Items were in disarray aisle after aisle. It took several tries to get help from distracted associates.

Later that day, I went to Amazon.com to buy a book. Like Wal-Mart, the Amazon homepage was chock-full of products — everything from running shoes to watches to power tools. And yes, books. I did some searching, but still needed to wade through several listings to find what I wanted.

Wal-Mart and Amazon are two corporate behemoths, and I certainly expect that they will remain successful enterprises for years to come. But I believe Amazon, like Wal-Mart, is at risk of becoming increasingly irrelevant to shoppers. Why? Because Amazon has lost the essence of what it is as a company and what its brand represents. Someday, our kids will be amazed to learn that Amazon was once the world leader in books.

This, I realize, must sound like heresy. Amazon sells everything, at such a great price! It’s so convenient! I agree. But here’s the thing: Convenience applies to online shopping in general. And while Amazon’s efficient operations and scale will make it tough for competitors to beat it on price, its brand is so diluted it’s hard to know exactly what the company sells.

Provide focused convenience

The fact that Amazon feels more and more like Wal-Mart — a seemingly random selection of unrelated items — will make it increasingly easy for competitors to pick off pieces of its business by providing more convenient ways to shop for specialty items.

If that sounds crazy, ask yourself why Amazon couldn’t beat Zappos in online shoes. It wasn’t for lack of trying: Amazon pushed its own Endless.com fashion site for years.

But Zappos had figured out that people wanted an easy way to shop for footwear. They hired customer service representatives who were prepared to talk shoes and built a website tailored to help people find the perfect pair. Consumers came to think of Zappos not as a place to buy shoes but as the place to buy shoes — even without discount prices. Finally,

Amazon wrote an $850 million surrender check to buy Zappos.

There’s a lesson here for all of us. Brands are most powerful when they do a specific something for a specific someone in a specific way. Ideally, the brand comes to be associated tightly in customers’ minds with a unique combination of these three elements.

Identify your brand

Too bad, for instance, Amazon didn’t start a separate brand for e-books — and call the new brand “Kindle.” Imagine how focused such a website would be: A one-stop shop for readers to find the best electronically published books.

Marketed properly, e-books could have become known as “Kindles” in the same way that tissues are commonly called “Kleenex.” What a waste of a great brand opportunity!
Instead, the Amazon homepage has women’s clothing featured alongside Kindle devices. That approach may work for the world’s largest online retailer, but only by virtue of its sheer size. For the rest of us, Amazon’s experience should be a warning: Don’t spread your brand too thin.

Jerry McLaughlin is CEO of Branders.com, the world’s largest and lowest-priced online promotional products company.

Learn more about Branders.com at:

Facebook: www.Facebook.com/branderscom
Twitter: @BRANDERScom

How to reach: JerryMcLaughlin@branders.com

If you’re like most Americans, chances are that question has haunted you from adolescence to adulthood.

Which is a shame, because it’s a terrible question. It sends our vocational thinking down the wrong path — which might help explain why 70 percent of Americans are unhappy with their work, and why more than 2 million voluntarily quit their jobs each month, according to a recent Forbes article. And when you consider how much of our lives Americans dedicate to our jobs, being unhappy at work too often means being unhappy, period.

Clearly, we need to adopt a new way of looking at our own careers.

Discover your talent

Let’s begin with the basic fact that you, dear reader, are a genius. That doesn’t mean you’re the next Albert Einstein. You are a genius as the dictionary defines it: “Exceptionally creative or talented, either generally or in some particular respect.” That has to be true about you. You are a once-in-the-history-of-the-universe creation. You must be exceptionally talented in some particular respect. But in what respect, exactly?

That’s the question we ought to be posing to our children, and the one we should be asking ourselves. Not, “What job do you want to get?” but “What thing(s) are you really good at?” Not, “What do you want to be?” but, fundamentally, “What makes you you?”

Pursuing this introspective line of questioning is a soulful, exciting process that leads to greater peace, happiness and productivity.

The fearful may warn against indulging our individual exceptionalities because we have to pay the bills. There are only two ways to get rich in this life: winning the lottery (not too likely, alas) or delivering some unique value to the world. What more promising way to unearth unique value than via the particular respect in which you are exceptional?

I renewed this inquiry for myself not long ago, as I approached my 50th birthday. I am happier and more at peace for having done it — and I’m a better CEO, too. Because, just as the only way for a business to thrive is to differentiate itself from the pack, so too the only way we can thrive as business leaders is by understanding our own unique qualities. We can only produce the exceptional by understanding how we are exceptional. 

Challenge yourself

So, here’s my challenge to you: Set aside the time to purposefully and deliberately explore what makes you exceptional. You won’t just be charting your course to personal fulfillment; you’ll be paving the way for creating value in the world. If you are unsure how to begin, pick up a copy of Todd Henry’s book, “Die Empty,” and do the exercises that resonate with you.

Unveil the new you

The New Year sparks the same desire in many of us: Be better, be different, be great. Instead of adopting a litany of resolutions designed to create a “new you,” resolve to reflect on the exceptional you that has existed all along. After a lifetime of striving to become what you think you’re supposed to be, let this be the year you define and celebrate the genius you naturally are.

Ask yourself the right questions:

  • What am I good at?
  • What makes me special?
  • What makes me happy? 

Finding those answers — and living them — are the only resolutions you’ll ever need.

Jerry McLaughlin is CEO of Branders.com, the world’s largest and lowest-priced online promotional products company. He can be reached at JerryMcLaughlin@branders.com.

 

When my corporate giveaways company Branders was first getting off the ground, I asked many people, “What would our customers have to believe about Branders for us to get as big as we would like?”

The answer to this question was what I came to think of as our “success statement” — a simple, sentence-length promise that if believed by customers and profitably delivered by us, would keep Branders growing and gaining market share.

Articulate your success

I learned from experience how challenging and valuable articulating such a success statement could be. Why? Because, while grasping the concept of a success statement is simple, actually crafting one is hard. To create ours, we needed an accurate understanding of many variables simultaneously: what drives our customers’ purchase decisions, our customers’ options as they see them and our company’s current and potential capabilities.

But the hard work paid off. When we found the words, it felt like a “eureka” moment. Our success statement — “Whatever line of business you’re in, whatever your occasion, you’ll find the giveaway that excites and delights you here, every time” — gave my Branders team and I strategic clarity. It told us who we were, what made us special and how we could keep getting better.

From that point forward, every decision we made and every action we took was measured against our success statement. Sometimes, developing a credible success statement requires you to change your product, pricing, promotions or distribution. In this way, it can focus your entire organization’s efforts.

For example, think of Visa’s tagline, “Everywhere you want to be.” Behind this tagline is Visa’s success statement. Your Visa card will be accepted everywhere you might want to use it. With that kind of clarity about what the customer needs to believe in order for Visa to be successful, the organization’s strategic priorities become clear.

Thrive in a crowded market

Smart success statements can also help multiple competitors thrive in a crowded market.  Consider toothpaste, especially in the days before fluoridated water. One company’s success statement might have suggested, “When you brush every day with our product, you will have fewer cavities than if you did the same using any other toothpaste.”

Another’s might have been, “When you brush every day with our product, you will have fresher breath and whiter teeth than if you did the same using any other toothpaste.”

Both success statements would orient their respective company’s product development, distribution, pricing and advertising efforts — albeit in different directions. And, over time, each company would become increasingly distinct, which is a good thing on a crowded field. Both success statements could work as brand foundations — and evidently they did. Today we all know that Crest fights cavities and that Close-Up is best for kissing.  

Develop a success statement of your own. It is not easy work, but it pays off both in the insights that come from doing it and in the focus the resulting success statement brings to all your operations. Ask yourself what statement about my product or service, if believed by customers, would cause my business to be more successful? Once you can answer this question, you’ll realize you’ve unlocked the answers to many more as well.

Think of your success statement as your magic words to success. ●

 

Jerry McLaughlin is CEO of Branders.com, the world’s largest and lowest-priced online promotional products company. He can be reached at JerryMcLaughlin@branders.com.

Health care expense tops the list of executive concerns in survey after survey, year after year. And it’s no wonder — just during the past decade, according to the California Healthcare Foundation, health spending per capita increased by nearly 75 percent.

But we can arrest and reverse this omnivorous trend. America will stop overpaying for health care when employers stop making payments to health insurers.

Think about it: American workers buy every imaginable good and service without the involvement of their employers — except one. The only major employee purchase brokered by the employer is the purchase of health insurance. Not coincidentally, health insurance is the only type of insurance for which costs are rising out of control.

There’s a simple prescription for arresting health care costs and gradually reducing them, without raising taxes or reducing tax revenues: change the tax code to allow Americans to deduct the entire amount they pay for health care and health care insurance from their taxable income.

Consider payment options

Years ago, my company, like many other employers, began offering our employees the option to either continue in our company’s health insurance plan or to take as extra salary the amount of the premium we were paying to cover them. The option made it plain that when employees used company-purchased health insurance, they did so using their own money. 

Everyone appreciated having the choice; many took the extra cash. Indeed, it has been my experience that many employees are better positioned to buy their own health insurance than are the companies for which they work. Employees know their own needs and those of their family, and having control over potential savings gives them an effective incentive to shop carefully.

Why isn’t this already standard practice? The culprit is the tax code. Health insurance is the only item of significant value that Congress has decided may be provided to an employee tax-free. And therein begins the problem.

Assume an employer spends $6,000 a year to buy health insurance for an employee. If the employer gave the employee $6,000 to buy his or her own health insurance, they would be taxed on the income, conceivably leaving them with less than $4,000 to spend on care. In other words, the tax code has created a situation in which employees have a very sound reason to want their employer to act as their agent in the purchase of health insurance.

Disincentive comes into view

But in handing the responsibility to their employer, employees lose their opportunity and incentive to shop for their best insurance option. Instead of having 100 million employees in a highly competitive market for health insurance, as we do daily for every other kind of insurance, we have a much smaller number of employers who are forced by practical considerations to buy expensive, one-size-fits-all plans in a much less competitive market.

To be clear, I am not advocating that employers not be allowed to buy the health insurance for their employees. I’m suggesting we remove the huge tax-code-created disincentive for employees to buy their own. Without that disincentive, more employers could give their employees the option to either stay in the company plan or take cash — and more employees would opt for the latter, becoming comparison shoppers rather than passive participants in the health insurance marketplace.

When millions of Americans start shopping for their own health insurance, we’ll see more and more creative options being offered at lower prices. And American businesses will retire rising health care costs from the current No. 1 position on the list of business worries.

 

Jerry McLaughlin is CEO of Branders.com, the world’s largest and lowest-priced online promotional products company. He can be reached at JerryMcLaughlin@branders.com.

Friday, 31 May 2013 20:00

The mothers of invention

I’ve always enjoyed working for myself. In fourth grade, I mowed lawns. In high school, I expanded into window washing. Later on, I started a janitorial company and an outdoor advertising company. Eventually, I raised money from venture capitalists and started a business to sell marketing supplies online. Supposedly, all of that was a single kind of activity called “being an entrepreneur.”

“Entrepreneur” however, is a stretched out word. It may have been a perfectly good word at one time, but it isn’t very useful any more. A fellow who owns a McDonald’s restaurant is called an entrepreneur, and so is Mark Zuckerberg who started Facebook. The word has come to mean something like a “businessperson” who takes “risks” to make money.

I am not sure how much risk is involved in opening a McDonald’s or dropping out of Harvard — maybe because I’ve never done either. But launching Facebook seems fundamentally different than opening the 14,000th McDonald’s. We need more nuanced definitions to describe these varied activities so that we can see the differences.

Originality, not risk

There is certainly risk in starting any new business, just as there is risk in investing in any business, no matter how large or well-established. But the essence of entrepreneurship in its most exhilarating and important sense has to do with originality, not risk. There is greater value in the discovery of new things than in the refinement of the known. That is why cooks and bakers proudly guard their newest recipes, while the best of the tried and true are free online.

Oftentimes, when we’re speaking admiringly of successful entrepreneurs, what we’re really talking about are what I’d call imagineurs (thanks, Walt Disney, for the inspiration).Imagineurs bring to the table not just a desire to build, but a desire to create — whether their creation is a new gadget, a new idea or a new business model.

This act of invention is what differentiates starting up Facebook from starting up a new McDonald’s. Both require the riskiness of basic entrepreneurship, but only one requires doing something no one else has done before.

New life into an old field

To see the potentially tremendous value in thinking up something completely new, consider a field that’s incredibly old: music. People have always wanted to be able to listen to the music of their choice at the time and in the place of their choosing.

Over the past 150 years, our ability to do so has changed and improved dramatically. Each great leap forward depended on imagineurs, be it Thomas Edison and his phonograph, or Nobutoshi Kihara and his Walkman, or Steve Jobs and his iPod and iTunes store. Each imagineur’s efforts enhanced our ability to listen to the music we love.

Imagineurs don’t have to be technological wizards or tinkerers in the lab. Walter L. Jacobs started America’s first rental car business with 12 Model T Fords; today that company is called Hertz.

Reed Hastings upended the video rental business by sending discs through the mail on a monthly subscription basis and started Netflix.

Imagineurs are architects, designers, creators and seers of the unseen. Through curiosity, ingenuity and discovery they contribute a founding insight without which, neither they nor any other business builder can proceed successfully for very long. They find a way to give customers what they’ve always wanted, but better, faster or cheaper than before.

Just as every great inventor had a mother, every great invention began with an imagineur.

 

Jerry McLaughlin is CEO of Branders.com, the world’s largest and lowest-priced online promotional products company. Reach him at JerryMcLaughlin@branders.com.

Thursday, 28 February 2013 19:00

Jerry McLaughlin: Live outside the box

Most business leaders want to greatly improve customer loyalty, and I am no different.

To drive loyalty to my promotional products business, we have tried all the usual means — low prices, free shipping, membership club benefits, discounts and exclusive product offers.

Once, we even tried sending a vase of fresh flowers after each order. None of these initiatives resulted in the dramatic improvement that we sought. Over the years, we have engaged a series of expert consultants to find even more ideas to try. But in our business, customer loyalty remains a tough nut to crack.

The pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly & Co. struggled with similar obstacles when it came to problem-solving in their business. Many were scientific, and — even though Eli Lilly’s substantial R&D group is staffed with talented technical experts — some problems resisted a solution for years. However, the company did invent a way to solve some of its problems quickly and cheaply.

 

Use expert advice — of others

Here is the gist of it: Eli Lilly discovered that it could solve a lot of the most intractable problems by giving them to experts from other fields. Simple? Yes. Counterintuitive? Yes. The surprise is that it seems to work.

The company put together an online network of thousands of scientists from other disciplines and “broadcast” their brain-stumping challenges to these experts from other fields. In many cases, the experts solved the problems by simply drawing on knowledge common in their own areas and applying it to Eli Lilly’s dilemma.

Eli Lilly’s scientists, we may presume, know just about all there is to know in their respective fields of expertise. Likewise, in my company, our experts know just about all there is to know about the industry, our products, our customers, competitors and so on. When the subject-matter experts can’t solve a problem, you need to cast a much wider net. If the specialists are stumped, then a solution, if found at all, will come from people outside the field.

 

Modify your individual process, if needed

Today, our company is using a version of Eli Lilly’s method in our business, which other organizations might also use to address their toughest problems. I didn’t have the time or means to put together a large team of experts from outside disciplines to work on my company’s challenges. So we use a modified Eli Lilly approach: We deliberately, routinely expose our in-house experts to nontraditional experiences and knowledge.

The idea is to see whether we can find our own answers by investing to acquire experiences outside those we normally encounter. In recent months, this new approach has involved my participation in a variety of eye-opening situations, including a meeting with the Cavalia producers, lots of museum visits, a guided tour of London graffiti and a design school workshop at Stanford University. On a personal level, I’m trying much harder to add new concepts and idea possibilities to my thinking.

I don’t know whether we’ll crack the customer loyalty problem in this way, but I can tell you that the ideas we discuss now are fresher than those we used to generate. That’s why my prescription for increasing the likelihood of solving the toughest problems is this: Live outside the box. ?

Jerry McLaughlin is CEO of Branders.com, the world’s largest and lowest-priced online promotional products company. McLaughlin can be reached at JerryMcLaughlin@branders.com.

Thursday, 28 February 2013 19:41

Jerry McLaughlin: Live outside the box

Most business leaders want to greatly improve customer loyalty, and I am no different.

To drive loyalty to my promotional products business, we have tried all the usual means — low prices, free shipping, membership club benefits, discounts and exclusive product offers.

Once, we even tried sending a vase of fresh flowers after each order. None of these initiatives resulted in the dramatic improvement that we sought. Over the years, we have engaged a series of expert consultants to find even more ideas to try. But in our business, customer loyalty remains a tough nut to crack.

The pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly & Co. struggled with similar obstacles when it came to problem-solving in their business. Many were scientific, and — even though Eli Lilly’s substantial R&D group is staffed with talented technical experts — some problems resisted a solution for years. However, the company did invent a way to solve some of its problems quickly and cheaply.

Use expert advice — of others

Here is the gist of it: Eli Lilly discovered that it could solve a lot of the most intractable problems by giving them to experts from other fields. Simple? Yes. Counterintuitive? Yes. The surprise is that it seems to work.

The company put together an online network of thousands of scientists from other disciplines and “broadcast” their brain-stumping challenges to these experts from other fields. In many cases, the experts solved the problems by simply drawing on knowledge common in their own areas and applying it to Eli Lilly’s dilemma.

Eli Lilly’s scientists, we may presume, know just about all there is to know in their respective fields of expertise. Likewise, in my company, our experts know just about all there is to know about the industry, our products, our customers, competitors and so on. When the subject-matter experts can’t solve a problem, you need to cast a much wider net. If the specialists are stumped, then a solution, if found at all, will come from people outside the field.

Modify your individual process, if needed

Today, our company is using a version of Eli Lilly’s method in our business, which other organizations might also use to address their toughest problems. I didn’t have the time or means to put together a large team of experts from outside disciplines to work on my company’s challenges. So we use a modified Eli Lilly approach: We deliberately, routinely expose our in-house experts to nontraditional experiences and knowledge.

The idea is to see whether we can find our own answers by investing to acquire experiences outside those we normally encounter. In recent months, this new approach has involved my participation in a variety of eye-opening situations, including a meeting with the Cavalia producers, lots of museum visits, a guided tour of London graffiti and a design school workshop at Stanford University. On a personal level, I’m trying much harder to add new concepts and idea possibilities to my thinking.

I don’t know whether we’ll crack the customer loyalty problem in this way, but I can tell you that the ideas we discuss now are fresher than those we used to generate. That’s why my prescription for increasing the likelihood of solving the toughest problems is this: Live outside the box.

Jerry McLaughlin is CEO of Branders.com, the world’s largest and lowest-priced online promotional products company. McLaughlin can be reached at JerryMcLaughlin@branders.com.

 

 

Friday, 30 November 2012 19:22

Jerry McLaughlin: The firing squad

Life is not only lonelier at the top, it’s shorter. After a recent study of CEO succession events in the S&P 500, The Conference Board has identified this general trend: CEOs have been getting fired faster. Why?

The Conference Board thinks it has something to do with shareholders becoming more aggressive in making changes at the top. That may be. But if so, then why are boards of directors — and the shareholders they represent — increasingly dissatisfied with CEO performance?

In one sense, the job of the CEO is the same as ever: to deliver a good result for shareholders. But excelling in that job today is much harder, particularly because the world has changed.

They say old dogs can’t learn new tricks. But not long ago, successful CEOs didn’t need to. The right person to have in the top job was the one who “knows the way we do things here” and wouldn’t try to fix what wasn’t broken.

As a result, the refrain, “That’s the way we’ve always done it,” wasn’t so much unimaginative as it was prudent. The prevailing mentality was it’s hard to grow a big business. So if you’ve found a way that works, count yourself lucky — and stick to it. Don’t try to reinvent the wheel — or the Coca-Cola.

Get a picture of the path ahead

But globalization, the rise of the Internet and the increasing rate of technological discovery have changed the very nature of being a CEO. Just because you’re in the right business, the right way, today, doesn’t mean you will be tomorrow.

Imagine it’s the year 2000, and you are CEO of a large call center serving the pharmaceutical industry. Your three tasks are to keep quality up, customers happy and land new accounts — until a company in Mumbai starts drastically undercutting your prices. Perhaps for the first time, you must find entirely new ways to think about the business.

That takes time, if a solution can be found at all. So you’re working to formulate a promising response — when you’re fired.

Now imagine you’re the CEO of a video rental company in 2000. Even if it’s a big business, the business is conceptually simple: Your job is to sell more video rentals and to increase the profit on each one.

How? Mostly by opening new stores and by making sure you have many copies of the most in-demand movies on the shelf every Friday night. Plus, you collect late charges. You are really good at those things. You even smoothly make the shift from videos to DVDs. But then someone in California comes up with a novel equation: DVDs + U.S. mail + subscription - stores = Netflix. A seemingly short time passes. You’re fired.

Take time to stop at talents

Corporate America has changed. In the past, a well-regarded CEO was one who could optimize the business model that he or she had. Today, CEOs must not only do that, they need to be skilled in redeploying resources into better businesses. Leaders who excel in running the core business must also be equipped to evaluate nascent opportunities beyond it. And frankly, most of them can’t.

Why not? For the same reason pitchers rarely hit well, and hitters can’t pitch. In baseball, you draft a player for his strengths, knowing he won’t do everything well. That’s why every big league manager knows better than to send the slugger to the mound or bat his closer at clean up.

Is it possible that your big hitter is also the unhittable pitcher? Well, maybe in your dreams.

You may find the CEO who can run the current business better than most or the one who starts and nurtures tomorrow’s winners today. But how many CEOs of large companies can do both very well? All of them could sit together in your living room, comfortably.

Boards that expect old dogs to learn new tricks — while continuing to perform the old ones — simply haven’t come to terms with the new realities of competition. CEOs hired to do both are well advised to cover their bases, and negotiate a severance package up front.

Jerry McLaughlin is CEO of Branders.com, the world’s largest and lowest-priced online promotional products company. Reach him at JerryMcLaughlin@branders.com.

 

When I was a young Marine officer, I observed that otherwise ordinary people could perform amazing feats. All they needed was training, tools, a clear goal and motivation. My job was to make the most of those four things.

Leaders in the business world are trying to do the same thing. But increasingly, I see them falling short, often because they’re not clear enough about the objective or not committed enough to achieving it. Yet others miss the mark because they have disconnected from their teams personally and emotionally, and that is what I want to focus on now.

Leadership is a messy business, in the sense that all meaningful human relationships are messy. Rewarding relationships last; the rest fail. So part of a leader’s primary responsibility is to ensure that there is a rewarding relationship between his or her subordinates and their work. The more rewarding the subordinate finds the relationship, the more latitude the leader has in sculpting and directing the team.

The problem I see increasingly in Silicon Valley — though it is by no means confined to this area — is that too many leaders are behaving as if the only meaningful rewards are financial, whether cash or stock options. In fact, the most effective motivational tools don’t cost the company anything, except a talented leader’s salary. They include incentives such recognition, praise, inclusion, important assignments, respect, status and the satisfaction of having produced impressive results.

The business press talks a lot about “customer care,” but the best leaders focus maniacally on “team care” because it is the team that will ultimately care for the customer. And the team will care about its responsibilities to the degree they perceive the leader is personally engaged with the team, its work and its members.

If you reflect in a calm, quiet moment on your working relationship with each of your subordinates, one by one, name by name, you’ll know in your heart whether you are leading them or just playing at it. If you’re not engaged with each of them and their work or not doing it as well as you could be, then changing the compensation scheme shouldn’t be your first move to improve performance.

Instead, change your behavior. It requires no budget increase or sign-off from above, and it will allow you to change the behaviors of your team more effectively and more sustainably than any other management concept, cash included. That’s because, no matter what tomorrow may bring, your team will be prepared to weather storms and seize opportunities, and you’ll be prepared to lead the way.

I understand that creating and deploying these nonfinancial incentives takes a lot more time, energy, thought, humility, humanity and maintenance than simply goosing the compensation plan. But there is simply no substitute for this harder work, which is frankly the essence of the leader’s job. Trying to sidestep it with cash is to abdicate a leader’s core responsibility.

Jerry McLaughlin is CEO of Branders.com, the world’s largest and lowest-priced online promotional products company. Reach him at JerryMcLaughlin@branders.com.

Sunday, 01 July 2012 09:06

Jerry McLaughlin: Breaking the rules

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 Branders.com, the world’s largest and lowest-priced online promotional products company. Reach him at JerryMcLaughlin@branders.com

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