Your assignment: Wake up and smell the coffee

Today, I’m giving you a homework assignment.

Many clients look at me sideways when I ask, “What are your brand differentiators?” They are not sure why they are better, smarter, faster, cheaper, hipper than their competition. Or they struggle because “Well, I offer coaching services just like ten billion other coaches. Nothing I can say or do makes that different.”

Ah, but yes you can.

Sometimes our differences are not in the “what’ we sell, but “how” we sell it – the experience we offer. That is the root of brand strategy.  Sure, you want to offer unique products or services. And if you want to avoid competing solely on price, you better ensure your quality appeals to your target audience as well.

People get stuck that they have to offer the best quality in order to differentiate. No you don’t. Sometimes, your target audience needs china, but sometimes they are just looking for disposable paper plates. This is why you MUST know your target audience. Should you offer the best paper plates that you can for the price? Absolutely, but maybe someone can’t afford your super duper reinforced paper plates and just wants ones that will hold a slice of pizza for an hour. There are markets for everything.

Your mission, should you choose to accept it:

Visit your local Starbucks and two other coffee shops in your area. Could be an indie cafe or perhaps another chain, like Dunkin Donuts. Instead of just refueling the java, I’d like you to take note of the following in each, using all your senses:

  • What smells do you note when you walk in the door? Do they make you feel a certain way?
  • Look around at the decor and furniture? Is it very industrial or very cozy?  How does it make you feel? Is it clean? Does it make you want to stay or leave?
  • What do you see and experience from the minute you walk in the door, to placing your order, to walking back out again? Take note of signage, services – and even the flow of the path you take from entrance to exit.
  • What is the color scheme? What does it evoke for you? What does it say about the brand’s personality?
  • Are the signs professionally produced with stunning visuals and cool typefaces? Or are they handwriten and more homemade? What type of personality does that evoke?
  • How does the barista treat you? Take note of phrases, demeanor, whether they cross sell or upsell you on other products.
  • Listen to the sounds within the coffee shop. What music is playing? Is there music playing? How does the crowd sound – subdued, energetic? What is the vibe from a sound perspective?
  • Is there anything unique you see or hear? A special play area for kids? A coffee tasting bar? HDTV’s with local news reports and ads?
  • Based on your observations, what type of coffee drinker is each establishment trying to attract? Is it really “anyone who drinks coffee” or someone more specific?

I want you to see that even though a business can offer the same underlying product (coffee) they are creating a brand to differentiate and attract a certain type of customer. No one’s ideal customer is really “anyone who does x” – it’s “certain people who do x.”And sometimes, beyond your products or services, one of the best ways to differentiate is via the brand experience itself.

What did you find? Please share your observations and reactions to this assignment in the Comments below.

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