Identity - Creating Your Purple Cow

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Is being unique your ultimate goal in your business? How, exactly, do you stand out from your competitors and make sure that you remain a purple cow?

Show Notes

 A crucial part of a business’ success is being distinctive and visibly different from its competitors. This is the main objective in creating business brand. Having a recognizable and distinctive name helps ensure you will be able to stand out from the crowd. 
 Distinctiveness is about the identifiers we use. These identifiers are how consumers recognise brands. They associate them with you. It’s your name, and brand elements you choose, such as your logo, any distinctive symbols, characters, shapes, sounds, colours etc. 

When you’re creating your business' brand, understanding what competitors can and can't legitimately copy is key to creating a unique brand. Your focus should be as much on what to create as whether you can prevent copying of the elements you create..

 That’s why creating slogans and taglines that are ownable is key to protecting our messaging strategy. We stand a greater chance of being associated with the message behind our strategy. 
 In today's fast-paced world, it is not enough to raise awareness of how we differ. We need to know and understand about intellectual property rights, and how this can help us achieve design choices that set us apart from competitors. 

 In this episode I touch on the laws governing the ownership of ideas and trademarks, as well as how to use them to protect your brand. I discuss:

  • Two components for a business to stand out
  • Difference between personal and business brands
  • Intellectual Property
  • Concept of distinctiveness
  • Popeye the sailor
  • How important trademark rights are in protecting business brands 
  • Famous personalities and their distinctiveness/uniqueness

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Seth Godin’s book Purple Cow highlights that our objective in business is to be unique.  We need to make sure we recognisably stand out from our competitors.

For a business, standing out has two components.

The first is to have a distinctive look and feel – that is, a name and other identifiers that enable us to be uniquely recognised.

Secondly, standing out is about having a business strategy that’s more relevant to our target customers than the alternatives.

An example of a winning business strategy is Dominos back in the 1970s when it noticed that erratic pizza delivery times were a problem for consumers. So, it set about improving its internal processes so it could reliably deliver its pizzas within half an hour. The business then came up with a slogan guaranteeing delivery within half an hour – ‘30 minutes or less, or it’s free’.  It was such an effective brand strategy that the company soared as a result.

Identifying a good strategy for winning in business is invariably about understanding our customers exceptionally well. The businesses that win do so because they understand their customers’ wants and needs so well that they are able to create offers that resonate with their target market.

Competitors can and will copy our approach because that’s business. It’s cutthroat. We should expect copying. But we need to ensure that our business is uniquely associated with our chosen strategy so that even if competitors copy our strategic approach, we remain distinctive and memorable to our target customers.

For example, Fedex is associated with overnight delivery. The fact that competitors copy its  approach and offer the same benefits matters less because, they have become associated in our  minds with overnight delivery.

A company is better placed to become uniquely associated in its customers’ minds if it focuses on using brand elements that it uniquely owns.  For example, competitors can’t copy a trademarked slogan because the trademark prevents them from doing so. Focusing on creating slogans and taglines that are ownable is a way to capture our positioning strategy so we can be uniquely associated in our target customers’ minds with that strategy. By protecting our unique way of making our offering known we stand a greater chance of being associated with the message behind our strategy.

This doesn’t stop competitors also offering the same thing that we offer. For example, 30-minute delivery times and making guarantees is something other pizza delivery companies can easily copy. However, they have to find a different way of articulating their offer if you have a trademarked slogan or tagline.

If you didn’t have a trademarkable slogan or tagline encapsulating your strategy, competitors would just be able to copy how you articulate your offer. That would make you less unique. It would inevitably reduce the effectiveness of your campaign because you would no longer be unique.  

If you manage to create a slogan and look and feel that makes you a purple cow in your category, it’s vital to keep it unique to you. Your focus should be to prevent other businesses copying your distinctive brand elements. If you don’t protect your uniqueness, then you would soon cease to stand out. If every other cow also turned purple, you would have to find a new way to be unique because you would no longer stand out.

Standing out through our look and feel is important to focus on when we create our business’ brand. This is where intellectual property laws come into their own. IP is about managing competition. Understanding what competitors can and can’t legitimately copy and what steps you can and should take to prevent copying is how you preserve your uniqueness. To be the only purple cow in a field of black and brown cows means choosing your brand identifiers with IP law as an uppermost consideration.

It's not enough to raise awareness of how we differ. We must stay unique to prevent others from copying our distinctive look and feel.

Distinctiveness is about the identifiers we use. These identifiers are how consumers recognise brands. They associate them with you. It’s your name, and brand elements you choose, such as your logo, any distinctive symbols, characters, shapes, sounds, colours etc.  These elements represent our business’ identity. They evoke an overall impression on target customers and are an essential part of a brand.

Jenni Romaniuk’s book, Distinctive Brand Assets features a comprehensive list of them and as she points out, they create memory links to our brands. So, they play an important role in uniquely identifying us.

Yet they’re often taken for granted and are not chosen with ownability as a  prime consideration, and nor are they always appropriately protected. I wonder whether some branding professionals assume that business branding is like personal branding.

If you consider an individual brand like Seth Godin’s, his bald head and style of glasses are unique to him. But he can’t own those aspects of his uniqueness. Anyone else can have the same name as him, a bald head of hair, and use the exact same glasses as he uses. Those elements cannot be protected to be unique to him even though they help us to recognise him. His name could be protected but that wouldn’t prevent other individuals also being called Seth Godin. They just wouldn’t be able to use the name for a similar business.

What primarily ensures we don’t mistake one person for another is that people have a unique appearance. Seth Godin stands out from all the other marketers out there who may have bald heads and wear similar style glasses because of how he looks and sounds. That iss his identity. It’s unlikely that someone copying him would look exactly like him. So, that’s why we can recognise that it’s him. The fact that he is a prolific writer and is a well-known thought leader are what make him famous. He doesn’t need to worry about those superficial aspects of his personal brand being copyable because they’re not really what makes him unique and famous.

Similarly, someone like Gary Vaynerchuk is known in part by his fast-talking personality. He stands out partly because of his tendency to swear. So, we have an impression of him as being a straight-talking unconventional personality. But many others including Mark Ritson also swear and are straight talking. These traits are just an incidental way that the two behave in the world. They couldn’t be more different in terms of their looks, backgrounds, and the topics they talk about. 

Personal brands differ from business brands because the appearance and identity of the individual at the centre of the brand is what’s unique. Even if someone else has the same name, it’s possible to tell people apart because they look different. 

People impact their businesses’ brands but are quite separate from them. So, for example, Steve Jobs’ personal brand is reflected in the Apple brand because often a business’ brand is imbued with the ethos of the founder. However, the Apple business is distinct from Steve Jobs’ personal brand. It stands on its own feet and with the passage of time Steve Jobs will be less identified with the Apple brand.

Unlike a personal brand, a business brand doesn’t have an existing appearance and identity. While individuals look and sound different to others, businesses need to be constructed in a specific way to enable them to have a unique identity, so they look and sound different to other businesses. There is no problem for individuals if aspects of their style is copied by others because they are recognisably themselves regardless of surface issues such as whether their head is bald or that they swear or that they wear coloured glasses or that they paint their fingernails pink.

A business brand can only look and sound like itself because of its brand identifiers, such as its name, logo, and other recognisable features. These identifiers are what make the brand uniquely recognisable. The law doesn’t allow other businesses to use the same identifiers if they have been chosen for ownability and have been appropriately protected. Other businesses are not free to copy the name or surface elements of other brands. They can’t use the same characters either unless they’re in totally different categories. Identifiers are what’s known as designations of origin. They are how people can tell which business is behind a particular product or service. So, brand elements must be chosen for their ownability and then protected by the business that uses them.  

Not all names or other identifiers you might choose are ownable. For example, if you choose a name that isn’t ownable, it means you can’t be uniquely identified by your name. You’d suffer the consequences of that decision down the line and most businesses who have made a misguided decision about their name, rebrand to use a name that can uniquely belong to them. 

If you think about the associations you have to a business’ brand you’ll notice there are random elements that stick in your mind. You may or may not know what the business stands for. But you may remember its name in a given context. That means that when a brand is initially designed, every element that goes to form its unique look and feel plays an important part in constructing its unique identity. Unlike an individual, it can and should stop its competitors copying its identifiers that make it stand out. That is, assuming it has chosen identifiers that are distinctive and hence ownable.  

We mustn’t forget that at a subliminal level these identifiers are the foundation of our business’ identity. The research of Daniel Kahneman tells us that most decisions people make when buying are made using their system 1, intuitive thinking. So, we need to pay close attention to the look and feel of a brand when we create the brand. 

The lack of training in intellectual property among brand designers is a problem because understanding the legal concept of distinctiveness, and what is involved to own brand names and other identifiers is essential when creating brands. Only distinctive elements can be protected. Given that our uniqueness as a brand becomes hard wired into our identity, we need to make sure we make good choices initially when we create the brand. And taking the right steps early on is how it’s possible to own elements that make our brand unique. Owning our identifiers is how we can remain purple cows among a sea of samey brands 

Changing your branding disturbs memory structures so you want to avoid the need for a rebrand down the line unless you’re in the very early stages of your business. 

I was asked recently what I think is the best branding campaign of all time.  There were many I could have picked. One of the first thoughts I had was Popeye the sailor. However, Popeye has never been a brand campaign even though Popeye the Sailor helped increase spinach sales worldwide. 

The character was conceived by Elzie Sagar for his comic strip magazine in the 1920s. It’s such a powerful symbol that it made a big impression on many children. I personally hated spinach but the image of Popeye becoming strong and seemingly invincible after consuming a can of spinach was powerful enough to make me want to eat spinach even though its bitter taste made me retch. 

The copyright in the Popeye character has expired (at least in the UK), so it’s in the public domain. But because Popeye has been trademarked by King Features, a syndicate that licenses comic strips, it means the Popeye character isn’t freely available to use. . 

Owning trademark rights in brand elements, such as your name or if you had a character like Popeye, is the ultimate to strive for because as long as you use that trademarked element in your business and renew your trademark you have rights over that identity element forever.  

Understanding what can be owned and protected using the various IP rights is important knowledge for brand designers. Once there is a winning strategy the way to become known and recognised by our target audience is through our name and other identifiers, such as any characters, symbols, fonts etc. 

We don’t want to make radical changes to our visual identity to disturb memory structures. So, the early decisions made when creating a brand need to consider IP carefully. Just as we don’t create brands by first designing the identity and then deciding what the brand is going to stand for, so we shouldn’t create brands and then think about what can be protected. We need to understand the intellectual property dimension of our decisions when we’re creating the brand. 

Design, marketing, and IP need to be considered in the round when creating or changing a brand. 

I don’t understand why the branding courses I’ve attended spend their entire focus on the marketing aspects of branding. They go on at length about strategy and differentiation and have little to say about intellectual property. My theory is that the people who are at the top of their game in branding and design belong to a pre-21st century era when IP wasn’t of central relevance, so they teach about branding by continuing to ignore IP. 

Yet IP has gone from a subject that was really esoteric to one that is the key driver of the digital economy. When I first heard about IP it was in the late 70s. I was studying land law at university. The subject of ‘choses in action’ came up in an incidental way during the course. It was effectively  intellectual property law but, in those days, the subject wasn’t so relevant. 

I didn’t give IP any further thought until I was an in-house lawyer at Reuters 10 years later. The  internet hadn’t yet become a central part of our lives, but Intellectual property law was highly relevant to the Reuters business because the business was all about software and information. 

Nowadays with the internet dominating our lives, IP is where the value of a business lies. So, people involved in the world of branding need to be aware of the ways in which IP laws impact their work in  the 21st century. There are so many businesses out there nowadays, all trying to be uniquely standing out. It’s difficult to find good ownable names and identifiers, and it’s all too easy to be found out if you’re using brand identifiers that belong to others. So, taking account of the law governing intangibles is a skill that brand designers need to learn. To create a brand in a rounded way involves taking account of marketing, design, and intellectual property. 

If you want such a training then check out the Brand Tuned Accreditation course which will be taking its second cohort in January. Simply register to receive the Brand Tuned newsletter and you’ll get  more information in the run up to the course later in the year.