The Law of Negative Identification

One of the cornerstones of brand identification is choosing a strategy for your company.  This can be an incredibly difficult task for many small to midsize companies, because their leaders (or boards, or branding agencies) may have varying views about what gives them the strongest advantages in the marketplace. So “choosing” the strategic path always creates a fear of leaving something out, overlooking something really valuable.  You might hear “if we decide we’re a service-oriented company, how can we communicate our ability to develop great products?”  Or “if we go to market on our great distribution abilities, how can we also get the message across about our great prices?”

When making the difficult decisions about how to communicate who and what you are, it can sometimes be easier to assert & identify who and what you’re NOT.  I call this the Law of Negative Identification.  This law is a perfect place to start when having the “who are we?” or “what should we be doing next?” conversations.  It also helps you position yourself against and among your competitors.  If you happen to be a company that has a great distribution strategy and also has great prices, it may also be true that you are NOT an excellent manufacturer.  Now that you have that important nugget in hand, you can go club your nearest competitor (who may happen to dabble in manufacturing) over the head with it.

Remember Porter’s postulate:  “A company go outperform its rivals only if it can establish a difference that it can preserve.”  In an endless sea of business categories, flush with same-ness, the differences are what enable you to get noticed.  If every one of your competitors is wearing a shade of red, you could really stand out by NOT wearing red…imagine how visible you’d be if you wore the FIRST green in the category, the first yellow, the first blue.

So how to decide what you’re not?  We usually start with the important stuff, like “where do you make most of your money?”  Or “where do you make the best margins?”  That usually wins most debates, but not always.  Sometimes, companies put brand first, or stick with their core strengths, even if the grass looks greener on the other side of the ROI fence.  That’s okay, as long as you’re not considering – not even remotely – becoming something you’re just not equipped or designed or engineered to be.  Look long and hard at your balance sheet.  Look long and hard at your people. Find the strengths and exploit them.  Find the weaknesses (or pure absences in some cases) and use those as the first pieces of your strategy puzzle.

So, who are you?  Or more appropriately, who are you not?