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The Differentiators Handbook:
The 3 Page Bible of Branding

The Differentiators vs. The Emotion-Sellers. Which Will You Be?


Recently, we saw a series of ad agency pitches at a big company. We asked the ad execs to define “branding.” This is what they said:

“People buy for emotional reasons, so branding is about giving you an emotion. That means good branding does not focus on your product. That's boring. The job of Branding is to make you laugh or make you cry.” Then they show a 30 second spot where you have no idea what the product is, what it does or why. These marketing professionals aren't hoping for sales. They're hoping for laughs.

Now the fact is--every one of them would have been fired on the spot by the great brand thinkers, the titans of advertising who invented the world's most powerful brands, the ones that become household names and last for decades.

These branding greats were the Differentiators. And here's what they'd tell you:

A Brand is a Difference

First and foremost, a brand is an idea: the most specific, important difference you stand for in the mind of another person. It’s a factual difference that sets you apart from others in a category. Celebrities, religions and countries can be brands, too, if they stand for something. Sure, they can make you laugh or cry.

But if you are in business, you need a special kind of brand: A brand that makes you buy.

This is called a selling brand. And it’s different from all the others.

A selling brand is not about getting awareness or emotion for its own sake. Because you can get ten million page views of a bear in a tutu dancing on the roof of your house– but it won't cause anyone to buy your house. Awareness is just step one.

Once you have their attention, you must pull them into the ranks of the persuaded–by making them a unique proposition–a promise to solve a problem better than competitors by giving them a specific benefit, and a specific reason to believe it. This is the only way you can move them to actually buy your product amid the thousands of choices they have.

Brand Emotion-Sellers make their clever creative talent the star of the commercial.

Differentiators make the product the star–the most dramatic, interesting part of the commercial. To do it they knit a story out of the “facts that make the difference.” Then they let the customer connect their own emotions to those facts, based on their own experience in their own lives. They know that such feelings will be more personal, vivid and powerful than anything a marketer could contrive.

This is why…


  • When Apple introduced their revolutionary ipod, they didn’t need to remind you of the joy of music. Instead, they gave you a startling, revolutionary fact: It’s like having 10,000 songs in your pocket.
  • When Boeing offered the 747, they said it’s a “Jumbo Jet” that can carry 450 passengers from New York to Sydney non-stop.
  • When Netflix appeared on the scene, they told you the facts of their difference–it was ‘videos in the mail vs. videos at the store.’ Suddenly, no more late fees, no more being told all the hits were all out, and you could keep it as long as you want.
  • When Kindle came out with its new Paperwhite reading tablet, it showed you a difference: now you could read comfortably in any light–even on the beach.
  • When Chobani created a veritable yogurt revolution for its Greek yogurt, it got straight to the point and told us: It’s super food compared to regular yogurt–it’s twice the protein, half the fat!

Facts first, feelings follow. In every case, the sellers supplied the dramatic facts; the buyers supplied all the emotion necessary and with it their dollars.

This is the philosophy of reality sell vs. emotional sell and it is the core of what we believe. Never has reality sell been more important to practice than it is today.

Unless you are visiting a website like–we believe that no customer shows up looking for an emotional relationship with you. They are looking for a solution to a serious problem which is often the difference between success or failure. Once you’ve showed that you can deliver the results at a fair price in a consistent way– then they will welcome a relationship with open arms.

Simple Formula for the Selling Brand

1. Idea First: A Selling Brand has a big, differentiating, idea at the center. It’s a proposition that says: “buy this product, get this specific benefit.” It promises you are the best at giving the customer something that will make them either happier, healthier, safer, smarter, richer, stronger, more attractive or more successful. We call this a Dominant Selling Idea. Most great brands began with one:

Volvo–safest car. Hertz–#1 Rental Car Company. BMW–Best driving car. Duracell–most dependable battery. Southwest–#1 low cost airline (used to be, anyway).

2. Story: A Selling Brand is a story–one that only you can tell. “People had a problem. A company came to solve it. Here’s what they did. Now life is better.” The story always supports the Dominant Selling Idea at the center.

3. Facts of the Difference: All stories are built on a set of facts–specific facts. So selling brands use dramatic, measurable facts to build their stories. The facts trigger the visualizations, emotions and the feelings in the listener. The Rule is: Facts first, feelings follow.


4. Look & feel, tone & personality are important to support a Selling Brand. However, they must only serve to advance the story and the Dominant Selling Idea, never distract from, confuse or block it. All execution must point back to the strategic idea at the center of the brand.

5. Use Competitive Claims: Selling Brands accept the reality that for one company to win the sale, another company must come in second. They are in business to give their customers an advantage, and their duty is to communicate it confidently and clearly. If they believe they are better or best, then they must say they are better or best without mincing words. They can not be afraid to put competitive, challenging claims front and center.

At the end of the day, beyond our words and claims, brands still succeed on performance more than anything else. Branding is just an invitation for someone to experience our product. After that, only action counts. The brand enters the customer’s mind when she feels the car hug the road, gets extra leg room in coach, is answered in one ring or has her headache go away.

We also know that there are exceptions to every rule including the ones above. There are great campaigns that have violated every part of our formula and worked anyway.

But if the objective of our brand is to seek sales, not applause, to put the wind at our backs, to show the customer a better way, not just a better ad or more entertaining video– then the percentages will always be with us if we follow the Brand Differentiators vs. the Emotion Sellers and practice the timeless rules of Reality Sell.

Our challenge is, as it always was, to make our branding and execution–from our websites to our sales conversations–stand up to the test of the Selling Brand.


This is our credo:

  • Our job is to put people in motion, not just get attention.
  • Simple always wins.
  • The narrower your message, the wider and farther it goes.
  • Story is the ultimate communication tool.
  • It's not what they hear - it's what they repeat.
  • People remember one idea. Make it yours. Dominant Selling Idea
  • Media is about technology. Message is about humanity. Every marketer must deliver both