Like a football team, every brand has to compete to win. But not every team is the best at everything — some have better quarterbacks, some are studs on defense, and yet others might even have the best placekicker in the league. Each team team competes on a different attribute to try to win the day.
A smart, well-defined brand does the same. It competes on having the best product, coolest mystique, or even the most righteous morals. But, like how you can’t have all the best players in the league, you can’t compete on every attribute. Just as with the brand personality, the strongest brands choose to play on one or two areas.
One of the best frameworks to help you conceptualize where your brand competes is the “brand territory” model, outlined by marketer Scott Lerman in his fantastic book, Building Better Brands (which we ourselves use, in part, to guide our branding processes). This mapping exercise helps you visualize where your brand competes on a spectrum of tangible to intangible territories: Assets, Offer, Approach, Skills, and Mission. Let’s start at the top and review each one of these territories.
The most tangible attribute on which you can compete, Assets are things you can own and control. You are the best choice because you are the only one with thing X. This could be a piece of equipment, real estate, intellectual property, supply, or something else entirely.
Poland Spring is a favorite example of a brand competing on Assets. It’s claim is at the heart of their slogan, “what it means to be from Maine.” Poland Spring is the best water because they have the best springs — springs that nobody else has, and nobody else can compete on. Disney+ does this with their characters and franchises — nobody else has Mickey Mouse or Luke Skywalker. And nobody can compete with the real-estate-driven convenience of Starbucks on every corner.
Taking a step more intangible, brand that compete on Offer competes on their goods and services. Do you have the best selection, most unique flavors, or even the most attractive packaging?
The Container Store offers the widest selection of, you guessed it, containers. And here in NYC, the Strand Book Store boasts of “18 miles of books.” La Croix is the sparkling water with the most instagrammable cans, and only Volkswagen has the iconic Beetle.
Brands centered on Approach are grounded in “how we do things.” Is there an attitude, outlook, or process that is different between your brand and the competitors? This could be a difference in style, like better customer service, or it could be a difference in the very foundation of your business, like ecommerce-first brands.
JetBlue approaches air travel in a friendlier, more human way than its competitors. Casper and Warby Parker disrupted stagnant industries with direct-to-consumer sales and no-BS pricing. Costco brings a “warehouse club” model to groceries. Apple makes the “most beautiful” personal electronics.
The list of brands that compete on Approach can go on and on, partly because this slice of territory is tied closely with innovation, making it an attractive play for many consumer brands.
Competing on Skills means your brand brings the best stuff to the table, every single time. You have the smartest people, most experienced team, most caring staff, or some other attribute about your brand that makes it the expert.
A lot of service brands will be found competing here: Memorial Sloan Kettering are the experts in cancer care. McKinsey and Company are the sharpest consultants. Culligan are the water pros. SNL hires the funniest sketch comedians.
Finally, on the most intangible end of the spectrum, you’ll find brands which compete on Mission. These brands are saying that the ideals that drive us are different, better, and ultimately the reason why you should choose us.
With Mission, most non-profits will be jockeying for position, from the American Red Cross to the Natural Resource Defense Council. But don’t discount this territory for your business branding — you can find both explicitly conscious brands like TOMS or Ben and Jerry’s, and some “big idea” players like Airbnb, Figma, and TED, competing in this space.
It’s tempting to say your brand is going to be the best at everything. But as the old saying goes, “if you chase two rabbits, you catch none.” Find a space on this spectrum, stake your claim, and then back it up. That’s how you compete to win.