Guest post from Maria Ross, founder and chief strategist of Red Slice  a branding and marketing consultancy and blog based in the US. She is the author of Branding Basics for Small Business: How to Create an Irresistible Brand on Any Budget available on Amazon.co.uk. Her next book, Rebooting My Brain will be available in February 2012.

“How on Earth did they think of that? Genius!”

Ever say this about a new hotshot company or product you’ve hear about? Some businesses just seem to have a knack for being in the right place at the right time with the right product or service. 

“Hitting a nerve” and becoming the next big thing is something about which all entrepreneurs dream. But building that buzz-worthy brand is about so much more than luck.

With my clients, I look at buzz-worthy brand strategies from two important angles:

  • What do you authentically deliver?
  • What space can you claim?

Be clear on what you can authentically deliver

If you just want to be a trend-chaser and go for the fast-cash, I’m not talking to you. Many clients want to be the next big thing – but they have to back up their claims with proof.  You can’t just “slap a coat of brand paint” over your business cosmetically and expect it to last.  People will see right through that.

There are markets for everything. So what can you promise that you can really and truly deliver? Don’t try to be hip, cool and edgy if your product or service is better suited for conservative budget-watchers.  Know your product or service well and exactly who it is for and tell your story to those people.  That’s how you can really hit a nerve – especially if you’re authentically providing real value and meeting a real need.

Apple hits a nerve because Apple continues to deliver on its promises. Their processes, R&D, and design aesthetic all lead into a product that the market adores.  Have they always hit the mark? Not, they haven’t.  But they always go back to who they are in their soul and what their brand represents.  And they continue talking to the people who want to hear that message, not to those who don’t.

What value do you provide? What problems do you solve? Who is your best customer? What can you realistically deliver? Once you know these answers, you’re much closer to crafting a story that people will care about and one that will really hit a nerve with a specific niche.

Understand the lay of the land – and carve out your story

Once you know who you are and where you play, now you can start to “zag” when others “zig.” With my clients, we do a high-level audit of four or five competitors: What do they say, to whom are they talking, what do they emphasise, how do they look?  After seeing some clear trends, we plot the businesses out on a scale. For example, with one client I used “traditional technology player” at one end and “cutting-edge new media expert” on the other.

All the competitors seemed to fall on one side or the other, but no one owned the space in the middle.  Literally, we saw a glaring “white space” that our client could authentically fill – and that was where we focused their brand story. The result is that their revamped brand story “hit a nerve” with their target audience because no one else was telling that story.

You’ll never hit a nerve with a “Me Too” strategy. You have to understand the competitive landscape and find a way to differentiate.  I’m always surprised by how many business owners do not map out their competitors’ brands with an analytic eye.  Instead of looking at everything your competitors are doing and copying it, look at what they are not doing and saying and find a way to stake your claim.

Developing a break-out brand isn’t easy. But you will be able to hit a nerve with your brand story no matter how crowded your industry if you approach it from these very two important angles: What can you really deliver and what space can you really own?