Standing out is always difficult. But, of course, it’s critical in business. If you’re not getting attention, you’re not attracting new customers, and you’re going to struggle to survive. And the more crowded and competitive your market, the more important it becomes to stand out—and the tougher it is to successfully do it. The most potent weapon in your arsenal: your brand.
Your customers need to know about you if they’re going to buy from you. When the competition gets fierce, that means it’s time to really lean into building brand awareness. Here’s what you need to know before you get started, and how to build the awareness you need to claw your way to the top of the heap in even the most competitive markets.
Step 1: Assess the market
If you’re trying to stand out in a crowded market, an obvious starting point is to understand where that market stands today. Right now we’re looking at things from a 10,000-foot view rather than getting down into the details—that comes later.
A lot of this process is going to be based in research. There are a number of different ways this can be approached at the early stages. You’re going to want to look at the ways the customer base acts, and the ways people might potentially interact with your brand or product.
A smart way to handle this is to, as much as possible, get in front of actual people. This won’t have to only involve your literal customers—that is, people who have already purchased from you—it can also involve prospects and your greater audience as a whole. But talking to people is always going to do more good than simply looking at data. Don’t get me wrong, you’re definitely going to want to examine the data you have available, because it contains valuable insights, but it’s critical to remember that you’re dealing with people, not numbers. And people want to be treated like people.
In addition to your customers, another group of people you might want to talk to is your product team. If you’re trying to debut a new product in your market, you should probably know what to tell people about it. Why did they build it? What does it do for people, and where does it fit into the structure of today’s market? Knowing where the idea came from, why the concept exists, is a great way to help you determine how to position it in the market. If you know why people might be looking for something like what you’re providing, it’s so much easier to represent yourself in a way that people are already looking for.
Step 2: Learn (more) about your customers
You need to know as much as you possibly can about the people you’re selling to if you want to break through the noise they’re hearing from everyone else in the marketplace.
You’ve taken a look at this already by talking to your internal team, but one obvious thing to examine is where your current and potential customers’ pain lies. What is it that causes them to seek you out? What exactly are people looking for when they find your product? The most important thing for you to determine is the decision point of your customer—that is, what is it that triggers one to switch products? The more loyal a customer is to the brand, the harder it is to convince them to switch. In a more competitive market, you can be sure that your competition is doing everything they can to keep the customers they have, and to seize every new customer they can spot. Knowing what makes someone willing to switch is a potent weapon.
You also need to be aware of how your customers find out about you and your product. If you’re reading this, you’re probably not working at a market-dominant business like, say, Nike, so people aren’t necessarily desperately seeking you out. Brand awareness is the name of the game. You might not reach the heights Nike has achieved, but if you know where prospects are looking, and you can put your brand in front of them there consistently and in a way that attracts and interests them, you’re going to be in good shape.
Step 3: Analyze your competition
If you’re going to find your place in your market—and build awareness of your brand—you’re going to need to know who you’re up against. You need to know who the competition is, and what they’re doing.
Discovering exactly who your competitors are is a good place to start—and it might be a bit more involved than you think. Your competition is more than just the few businesses you might name off the top of your head. Obviously if you’re running into the same ones over and over again, they ought to make your list. But in the most competitive landscapes, you need to dig a little deeper.
Look into the keywords you want to rank for. Who else is showing up there? You’ll probably know some of the names, especially if they’re local, but there’s bound to be plenty you’re just now learning about. And you should get as deep as you can with each of your most important competitors. Audit their work to see what they’re doing. See how it compares with what you’re doing, and look for gaps in their marketing. Those gaps are your opportunities for advancement—toeholds in the competitive market.
Step 4: Generating the brand awareness you need
Okay, so now you have an understanding of your competition, your customers, and your market as a whole. You have the information you need to make some smart moves towards actually generating more awareness for your brand—and bringing in more customers.
There’s a right way and a wrong way to do it, though. And it’s not always easy to tell the difference between the two.
What not to do
First and foremost, don’t buy a list of leads. I know, it’s tempting. You want to break through the noise in a big way, and adding a host of names to your contact list all at once seems like a quick and easy way to pull it off. But it’s far more likely that it’s just going to be throwing money in the trash. There’s no way to guarantee the quality of lead you’re bringing in. And spending time and resources and money going after the wrong people, targeting the wrong audiences, is simply a waste. The people on that list aren’t necessarily interested in you—they’re not qualified, they haven’t been looking for you, and honestly, if they haven’t interacted with your brand before and you show up in their inbox, you’ll probably just make them mad. That means list buying is also a bit ethically questionable—which is why regulations like GDPR and CCPA try to combat the use of purchased lists.
Once you’ve got a handle on who you should be targeting, the work’s not done. You need to make sure you’re saying the right things to the right people. After all, your audience isn’t likely to be monolithic. You’re going to need to segment your audience, and determine the proper messaging for each segment. Simply saying the same thing to everyone isn’t going to get you anywhere—it might hit for one, maybe even two segments, but the chances are very good that significant portions of your audience are not going to pick up what you’re putting down.
You might notice a theme here—namely, that undirected marketing isn’t the answer. You’ll want to carefully determine the audience you want to target, and who’s outside of your purview. Stick to the people you’ll actually get interest from.
What you should do
So what are the alternatives? What can you do to stand out?
A good start is to figure out exactly what you’re great at—especially what you’re better at than the rest of your competition—and push your chips in there. Now, that doesn’t mean you have to turn yourself into a one-note brand. You can still vary your messaging and do a variety of unique and interesting things with your marketing. But find your niche as best you can, and do everything possible to maximize the differences between yourself and everyone you’re up against in your market.
One way to do that is to craft a better brand. That can mean a lot of things. Maybe you need to tell a better story. Maybe it’s building a better company culture, and then showing it off. Or maybe you need to tear your brand down and build it back from the ground up. But your brand is going to be a critical tool in your efforts to stand out. Make sure it’s tightened up as much as it can be.
You can also try to make the process of purchasing and using your product or service as simple and enjoyable as possible. Improving your customer experience doesn’t just help you move prospects through the buyer journey more quickly and efficiently, it also makes the process more enjoyable for them. And that means the potential for positive word of mouth, which is one of the most powerful tools you have for breaking through crowded markets.
Know the battlefield, know victory.
It’s not easy to stand out under the best of circumstances, but when you’re competing in a crowded and challenging market, it’s far more difficult. And it’s all the more important to make sure you do stand out—there’s a finite number of people who might buy from you, and the more competition there is for those customers, the harder it is to bring in enough for your business to survive and thrive.
Know your market, know your customers, know your competition. Avoid the common pitfalls of brand awareness, and move intelligently through the crowded waters of your market. You’ll find yourself at the top of your heap in no time.
Thomas fills a few roles at E3—writer, editor, and resident European soccer expert—but his chief responsibility is content creation. When he's not crafting thoughtful content for the Element Three blog, he's captaining our kickball team, watching the Mets, or talking up Indianapolis to anyone who will listen.
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