Branding mistake #1 —
forgetting to differentiate your brand.

Part of our series “6 Mistakes You’re (Probably) Making with Your Digital Brand”

mistake falling to differentiate

As a brand leader, you’ve done your homework.

You know where your customers shop, the causes that are important to them, and which social media apps they prefer. The brand identity you’ve created is data-driven and laser-focused, not to mention consistent across platforms and channels. No matter where or how your audience connects with your brand, your target customers are sure to feel like their experience is tailored to their interests.


Pat yourself on the back: You’ve checked every box.


Well, almost. As any number of up-and-vanished brands will tell you, a brand’s identity needs to be more than just tailored and consistent to succeed. For a business to thrive in today’s hypercompetitive marketplace, it must also find a way to stand out from the crowd. This goes for the month-old, online-only clothing store and the 200-year-old bank. Customers have more options than ever — they need a compelling reason to pick you.


To give them just that, you may need to tweak three parts of your branding strategy.

1. Your brand visuals.

In today’s digital-first world, brand differentiation begins with curating a unique look and feel, says Mara Lecocq, brand director for the social media network Fishbowl, a platform that allows professionals to network with a degree of anonymity.


“Just like in life, you have one second to make a first impression,” says Lecocq, who has also worked as a creative director producing content for brands like Nike and Starbucks.


Beauty company Glossier knows all about this. The makeup and skincare industry was in a dogfight when the ecommerce site muscled its way onto the scene in 2014, sprinting past the billion-dollar mark in just five years. While there are many reasons for Glossier’s dazzling success, Lecocq believes much of it comes down to its decision at the very beginning to embrace a less polished, unfiltered aesthetic that was directly at odds with the look and feel championed by industry giants.


“Everybody’s obsessed with Glossier because they did the opposite of what L'Oréal was doing. They took their customers’ social media pictures and reposted them, bad lighting and all,” she says. “That was innovative back then, and just so different from the polished and old-fashioned feel that dominated the industry.”


For creative leaders today, the lesson is clear: Identify the industry norms and then deviate, embracing a visual path that is both unique and authentic to your brand’s mission and audience — and not just once, either. As a brand grows from a small and scrappy startup to an established company with numerous stakeholders, the tendency is to play it safe by copying the look and feel of leading brands. Lecocq sees this everywhere. “I can’t differentiate between the major sportswear brands anymore because it’s all about the athlete jumping over benches in poorly lit streets.”


Instead, embrace deviation as its own kind of norm when determining the images that will represent your business, and you’re certain to capture audiences’ attention — again and again.

2. Your brand voice.

So you’ve managed to slow your target customers’ scroll with compelling visuals. “Now they’re thinking, ‘I’m intrigued and I’m going to read the copy,’” Lecocq says. Here’s where your brand’s voice comes in. The best way to speak to your audience depends on all kinds of factors, starting with your ideal customer. There is one tried-and-true rule in effective copywriting, however, and that is this: Don’t be stiff.


Flo from Progressive, Martin the Gecko from GEICO, Lily from T-Mobile — these breakout stars are household names that have brought their brands fame and fortune thanks to their human (or reptilian) and lighthearted touch. Policygenius, an online insurance platform, doesn’t have a mascot (yet), but it, too, has embraced a personable voice in a traditionally stony-faced industry, popping into popular podcasts with tongue-in-cheek ads and taking to Instagram to explore the life insurance implications of Avengers: Infinity War. Founded in 2012, the company has more than 30 million users today.


Humor and snark aren’t the only ways to differentiate your brand’s voice. For example, Maurice Harris is the founder and owner of Bloom & Plume, a bespoke floral design studio in Los Angeles. He is also a master storyteller who names his arrangements, ascribing to them colorful character traits and rich backstories. The result is his own TV show and more than 250,000 followers on Instagram.


Cheeky, earnest, self-deprecating — whatever voice you adopt, just make sure to “keep it real and really authentic,” says Lecocq.

“Keep it real and really authentic”

Mara Lecocq

Brand Director, Fishbowl

3. Your brand story.

At this point you’ve caught your audience’s eye and endeared your brand to them with your copy. “Now I’m engaged,” Lecqoq says. “And I want to know, what is the backstory of these people?”


Jaqi Wright and Nikki Howard were among the thousands furloughed when the federal government entered a 35-day shutdown in December 2018. The sisters had no idea when they’d be returning to work. When they showed up at a church social with cheesecakes in hand, their mother suggested the cakes were good enough to sell, and she was right. The two opened The Furlough Cheesecake and soon were filling orders from across the country. Equally irresistible was their story, which landed them in Forbes and O Magazine and on CNN.


DANNIJO is another sister-owned business, founded by Danielle and Jodie Snyder. They anchor the story of their jewelry label in their memories of rummaging through their mom’s own collection as kids. Their brand isn’t just a brand — “it’s a sisterhood,” states their home page. Their website and social media posts display images of the two of them traveling the world together, hands clasped. To read their blog, stop by their shop on 11th Avenue in New York City, or drop $220 on a pair of silver hoops is to join in their story of sisterhood — one that, the website points out, just happens to include women like Beyonce, Natalie Portman, and Kim Kardashian.


Origin and founder stories, as compelling as they are, represent just one kind of brand story. Product stories allow customers to frame their purchase as part of a larger community, effort, or history. Buy a serving bowl from Hebron Arts, for example, and you’re supporting traditional artisans in one of the world’s oldest and poorest cities. 


Once you’ve trained yourself to see brand stories, you’ll quickly realize you’re surrounded. As a creative leader, it’s up to you to determine which stories are most likely to keep your customers engaged. “Think of it this way,” Lecocq says. “The visual is the makeup. Everything looks nice. You’re interested enough to have a conversation. That’s the brand story. You want your customer to leave that conversation thinking, ‘Oh, this person is interesting. I want to stay in touch.’”

Stop trying to play it safe.

There was a time when a business could ride the tide of success with a generic brand as long as it offered the right product at the right price. That time has passed. With so many brands to choose from, today’s customers are looking for a gut-level connection before they part with their hard-earned cash. 


“All of these old brands are struggling because new generations want to be associated with brands that make them feel a certain way,” Lecocq says. “They can’t figure out how to innovate because they’re too afraid of upsetting people from different demographics. So they end up with visuals, a voice, and a story that are all super bland and just forgotten by everyone.”


That doesn’t have to be your fate. Foster a brand identity with a look, a personality, and a story all its own. If you do it right, not only will you stand out from the crowd, but you’ll also find that your customers are just as invested in you as you are in them.

Adobe can help.

Adobe Creative Cloud for teams gives you the world’s best creative apps and services in a single, secure, integrated platform. With 20+ desktop and mobile apps, Creative Cloud Libraries for keeping assets in sync across apps and devices, and 1TB of storage per user, this complete creative solution is designed to support your business at every stage of growth. Plus, you can count on simplified license management and total control over your software to help your team stay focused on creating great work.