Strategizing Who You Are Not Helps Define Who You Are

Companies spend hours, days, months trying to pinpoint who they are and what they want to become. This is a classic positioning exercise, and necessary to differentiate ourselves in the market. But sometimes a way to trigger razor-sharp differentiation is to first identify what you are not, and what you never want to become.

Think Target vs. Kmart. Coke vs. Pepsi. Dunkin’ vs. Starbucks. These paradoxical forces are excellent handholds to remind each brand of the “other”—and there is power in understanding who we do not want to become. The values and goals of competitors can help us define our own vision—not by imitation, but by competitively declaring ourselves as the other.

When Steve Jobs declared over a decade ago that he would not lower Apple computer pricing to meet competition from Dell (and other low-priced) computers, he set a stake in the ground that did not just impact short-term goals. Job’s declaration that price-cutting would be a “slow race to the bottom” became forward vision responsible (in part) for AAPL’s ultimate success.

JCP has taken time for introspection lately and also decided what they are NOT—lately leaving the Kohl’s, Herbergers, Dillards, Sears, and others behind.

The contrast provides insight and opportunity. And it also solidifies the beliefs of your brand zealots. It’s election year, and there’s nothing like a Democrat telling a Republican why they are wrong (or vice versa) to help solidify the beliefs of both parties. The same is true ofStarbucks/Dunkin’ Donuts, Coke/Pepsi, Nike/Adidas, Ford/Chevrolet and other brands.

Understanding what you are not and never want to become also influences execution and tactics.

For a time, Women’s Wear Daily on Twitter showed that nearly 2 million people followed the fashion mag tweets. But how many people did WWD follow?

No one.

Only recently has WWD started following other haute leaders like NY Times, Marc Jacobs, Yves St Laurent, Vogue, Dior, Chanel…defining themselves by the company they keep–definitively not @whatahick.

A brilliant way of differentiating themselves, establishing leadership, and still not stumbling on the runway.