Last week I had the honor of speaking at Food Lab Detroit, a great group that started in 2011 with a handful of food entrepreneurs dedicated to supporting Detroit’s growing good food movement. Foodlab’s members Cultivate thriving good food businesses, Connect with a diverse food community and help to Catalyze food revolution in Detroit- as stated on their website. Members are as diverse as they are talented, from start-ups to food processing, businesses selling retail products and others with just great ideas. The topic of the session I attended was “Packaging Design: from concept to shelf.” I was asked to present about defining a brand strategy as part of the overall discussion. At first I was having trouble figuring out how my strategy piece would fit within the more compelling discussion of package design because my take ways were more esoteric. But then it dawned on me: the strategy piece comes before anything else so it was the perfect set up. Well, yes – duh. Let’s say fancy packaging momentarily blinded me, which is actually a perfect segue.

The topic of the session I attended was “Packaging Design: from concept to shelf.” I was asked to discuss the topic of defining a brand strategy, as part of the overall discussion. At first I was having trouble figuring out how my strategy piece would fit within the alluring discussion of package design because my takeaways were more esoteric. But then it dawned on me: the strategy piece comes before anything else so it was the perfect set up. Well, yes – duh. Let’s say fancy packaging momentarily blinded me, which is actually a perfect segue.

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As I thought about that end product, beautifully packaged and perched on the shelf I thought about how good design could obscure a brand’s actual competitive advantage. Sometimes brands use nice packaging to mask an inferior product. Other times, they skip the strategy step because design is more tangible (and more fun). Both of these are critical mistakes because defining your competitive advantage needs to come first.

Your competitive advantage is why people do business with you and if it’s not well-defined it will be extremely difficult to have long-term traction.
So let’s dive in with my opening question:

What makes my product unique?

Finding the answer to this question is how you define your competitive advantage. And developing your brand strategy starts with defining your competitive advantage. Hint – this is kind of important.

Now at first glance this might seem easy. Perhaps a wave of adjectives just took over your body and you have countless ways to distinguish your product. But wait- not so fast!  Let’s see if your key differentiators can endure when placed under a microscope.

For clarity’s sake, what do we even mean when we say “competitive advantage?” For the purpose of this exercise, think of your competitive advantage as your elevator pitch.  That quick hit, 30-second explanation that rolls off the tongue like a warm knife going through soft butter. Now does your definition stack up? Not as easy when you need to condense everything into an easy-to-digest, 30-second pitch- is it?

Four key questions for a competitive advantage – or elevator pitch – to really be solid.

1. Is it objective?
2. Is it quantifiable and not arbitrary?
3. Is it original or is it already claimed by competition?
4. Is it a cliche? (let’s hope not)

If you just had the epiphany that what you thought was your competitive advantage really isn’t all that competitive or quantifiable fear not, there’s a silver lining. Here is where you get to the core of what makes your business, product, brand or service great! Let’s get started.

First, some key things to consider:

  • What makes us great/unique
  • Competitive set – how do we stand out
  • Think holistically
    • How will your messaging translate to other mediums?
    • How easily transferable is your message?

Once you’ve scribbled a bunch of notes and answered these questions, don’t stop.

  • Brainstorm ideas – start wide then narrow
  • Tap co-workers, family and friends for input
  • Focus on creating only the elevator pitch first
    • Your elevator pitch is the foundation piece to your brand strategy

This is going to be a process and there most likely will be numerous iterations before you get it right. Don’t get discouraged; just remember this is mission critical. Once your draft competitive advantage has some shape, do the following:

  • Think about it critically
  • Gather feedback
  • Consider internal & external audiences
    • If you’re selling a product, how many people will touch your brand along the way…
    • Think Game of Telephone – keep message simple and succinct

It’s starting to look good, right? Aww yeah. We’re getting to the home stretch so get that second wind because now we need to fine-tune your working draft. Take in the feedback and assess against your original definition. As referenced above, think about it critically.

Now if you’re sitting there still scratching your head, saying to yourself “I don’t have any competitive advantages.” Say it with me – yes you do! You just need to dig a little deeper and create some. And no, this isn’t cheating.

Here are some examples of other areas where you can extract a competitive advantage:

  • Your process – maybe there is something unique
  • Benchmark your advantages vs. competitor’s
  • Carve out a new niche
  • Identify a solution to your customers’ problems

After all your hard work to draft, refine and define your competitive advantage, get out and spread the word. Use your elevator pitch to bridge your full back-story and weave it into all forms of marketing communications. And don’t worry, just because we’ve focused on condensing your message doesn’t mean your whole history has to get lost. Maximize other mediums to paint the full picture, including your packaging, website, social media and marketing collateral.

In closing, I’ll leave you with 5 key take-aways:

  1. Spend time getting your elevator pitch right – it’s THE foundation piece in your marketing strategy
  2. Make sure it’s objective, quantifiable and sustainable
  3. Consider the touch points (e.g. game of telephone)
  4. Get out of your own way
  5. Assess and monitor but don’t just react

Remember, defining your brand strategy isn’t always easy. It takes time, patience and creativity to forge a strategy that will not only resonate with your target consumer but also one that will be sustainable.

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