Many years ago, I tried my luck with online dating. I signed up for a free trial on Match.com, uploaded the only digital picture I had of myself (remember, this was pre-facebook; in fact, digital cameras were just coming onto the scene), and wrote a quick, clever bio and waited for the matches to flood in.

branding is like dating a littleThey didn’t.

I mean, not even a wink.

And so, I filled out my profile more completely, thinking this would improve my chances of showing up in search results.

But still, no matches.

I looked back at what I had filled in. And then it hit me: I hadn’t lied about my income (less than $100k), height (5’8”), marital status (divorced), or parenthood status (one child and he didn’t live with me). How foolish of me. I wondered if I would have more luck finding a “match” if I were richer, taller and without…so much history. And so, I tweaked my profile to reflect these almost honest changes.

Finally, I got a few winks.

Had I swapped out my photo for a better photo of my self-proclaimed doppleganger, George Clooney, I’m sure I would have had even more success.

Sadly, but not surprisingly, none of those matches led to anything. They never do when they’re not based on reality. But that doesn’t stop people from trying. Men will lie about their income and women will post photoshopped pics of their younger selves.

My attempts to aspirationally represent myself on that dating site all those years ago is what many brands still do today in the real world. Every growing brand needs to increase market share. To do so, it seems logical that they need to attract the masses. If their target audience perceives them as the Brad Pitt of brands, then they can dominate the marketplace.

Only, they’re not the Brad Pitt of brands.

Do you want to know who the Brad Pitt of brands is? Apple.

If I had a dollar for every small business that, over the last five years, told their advertising agency or web design firm that they wanted to look like Apple, I’d be a wealthy man.

But even if those brands had a site and advertisements identical to Apple’s, it wouldn’t have mattered. What they wanted was Apple’s brand equity. They wanted to be perceived as design-forward. They wanted to be perceived as relevant. They wanted to be thought of as expensive and worth every penny. And they wanted to believe they could just buy that kind of cache’ — and get it for a discount.

But brands that hope to buy their equity lack the culture, the products, the discipline, and the intangible elements that helped Apple earn the status it continues to enjoy.

What’s the term again, lipstick on a….? You get where I’m going with this.

...doesn't look better with red lips

So why is this expectation a problem? Isn’t that just marketing?

No. No, it isn’t. At least, it isn’t effective marketing. If you’re busy trying to look like Apple, while everybody else is trying to look like Apple, but the only brand that’s successful at being Apple is…Apple, then you’re going to run into a few problems. For starters:

 

  1. You set yourself up to be a disappointment.

    The truth is, people are rarely as smart as you wish they were, or as dumb as you want them to be. Just like the short guy that eventually runs out of tall shoes, your customers will eventually come to know what your brand is really like.If you sold yourself on qualities you don’t really have, your customers will be disappointed. And not only will you not get a second date, you won’t develop a very good reputation.This kind of tactic only works for brands with a monopoly that need to pretend to look like they’re trying. Like Comcast—it doesn’t matter that you don’t like them: they’re the only game in town.
  2. You will get overlooked.

    The world is full of posers. And this leads to a lot of distrust in the marketplace. It is not uncommon for marketing managers to operate under the assumption that advertising, visual identity, and clever copywriting make a brand. But there is a reason breakaway brands arrived where they are and it didn’t come from simply pretending to care about quality, aesthetics, or customer experience.If you are a relatively small brand, you don’t have the budget to cut through the noise. The best way for you to compete is by being different. Sally Hogshead made this point clear when she coined the phrase, “different is better than better.”Better is subjective. Better keeps you in a sea of sameness.
    You want to be like Apple? Start to think different.
  3. You deny yourself the very love that’s waiting for you.
    Somewhere out there is a customer looking for the very experience that only you can provide. They might not even know they’re looking for it. And they won’t know until you give it to them.Your company is comprised of unique individuals.Don’t try to be the same as your competition. Don’t present your brand as something it isn’t. Figure out how you can be more…you.Figure out where the people that want what you have in spades might find you. Get out there and discover your future fans. Then give them every reason to love you. Every reason to talk about you.It doesn’t matter that they don’t match the aspirational target audience you conjured up in a marketing management meeting.What matters is that there are people willing to pay money to use your products or your services.

    Find the happy ones. Figure out what it is they like about you. Before you scale, figure out who loves you and let them light your way.

    If you don’t have any customers that love you, it’s either because, 1) you aren’t clearly communicating your difference or, 2) you aren’t getting in front of the people that would love you; or both.

 

I hope this little one-way conversation has helped. Be strong. You may not be the deciding voice at your company regarding brand persona, but you might have more influence than you realize.

If you lose your way, remember: There is always demand for a confident brand.

More about that later.