Customers today crave the real--an experience that means something, not just a cookie-cutter formulation.
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Revlon, L'Oreal, Lancome, Avon...hadn't they cornered the market on beauty supplies? Why even bother creating something new? The obvious marketplace conversation was about looks--whose shine was the longest, whose eyeliner clumped the least. The missing conversation, Anita Roddick realized, was about values--that what we put on the outside of our bodies reflects the principles we stand for on the inside. The Body Shop, and its commitment to natural, cruelty-free products, was born.

Find a hole--the secret conversation that others are missing. Fill it, and you win. Business hotels were boring, just like executives' city-to-city slogs...until the Kimpton chain launched their boutique hotels and let a bunch of gay men loose to design and accessorize them. Trust me, corporate travel is a lot more fun wearing a leopard print robe.

To succeed, your company--no matter how large or small--has to cultivate a compelling brand. How would a customer describe what you do? What's different from anyone else? Here are four strategies to help you identify and build your unique brand.

Find uncontested territory. Get out of the shallow waters where your competitors are hacking each other to death. The best brands, like Apple, identify where everyone else is fighting (Faster processing speed! More features!) and change the debate entirely (Electronics that work well and look beautiful!). Where do you possess an advantage that no one else can match, and how can you leverage it?

Brand = Product + Experience
. A client of mine has been going to her hairdresser for years--not because of her stylist's technical abilities or product mix, but because she's a literary fanatic who trades tomes with her clients and offers on-target recommendations. This hairdresser has succeeded because she took a seemingly unrelated aspect of her personality--her love of literature--and integrated it with her business to create an exceptional customer experience that chain stores can never match.

Follow Your Brand Passion
. My city has plenty of great barbecue. But thanks to the owner's commitment, one rib joint has become renowned for its link to biking. On the surface, it seems as irrelevant as the hairdresser's reading habits. But it's a genuine passion that has differentiated Redbones in a crowded field. At every turn, they reinforce their message--home delivery by bicycle, annual fundraisers for bike charities, Tour de France breakfasts. The result? Recreational cyclists, bike commuters, shop employees, messengers, and bike industry insiders all come there religiously, creating a solid business base and a tremendous buzz.

Engage Your Messengers. Successful brands, simply put, are fun for people to talk about. They're innovative, and sharing interesting information with friends makes your customers feel like they're doing their buddies a real favor. To wit: in most cities, there are probably dozens of bakeries that sell cupcakes. But the latest sensation is stores that specialize in cupcakes. That's unusual enough to provoke comment--and it's logical to believe that if all you do is cupcakes, you've got to be pretty exceptional at making them.

Customers today crave the real--an experience that means something, not just a cookie-cutter formulation. Your brand springs from your passion and your ability to see opportunities that others don't. That's your unique contribution to the marketplace--and the reason customers will choose to buy from you, and not someone else.

Dorie Clark is a marketing strategist who teaches at Duke University's Fuqua School of Business. She is the author of Reinventing You and Stand Out, and you can receive her free Stand Out Self-Assessment Workbook.

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