What’s the Word?

Can you truly own a word?


When people think about your brand, what word springs to mind? Would it be simple or difficult to describe what you do to their friends?


Many brands have a problem answering this question; one which ultimately equates to “what do you do that nobody else does?” This is the first thing we like to consider at CTC when thinking about brand positioning and how best to advertise your product.


In their book Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind, advertising wizards Jack Trout and Al Ries introduced the idea of “owning a word” in the customer’s mind (this was further unpacked in Ries’ The 22 Immutable Laws of Branding).


The most potent examples of this principle are those companies that have replaced the common word with their brand name. Xerox, Kleenex, Q-Tip, Polaroid, and Band-Aid are classic versions of this. “Catch an Uber” is a modern iteration of this (even if you’re catching a Lyft). “Let’s get an Airbnb.” (An extreme example of this is the Southern propensity to call all different types of soda “coke” —it’s so genericized that they don’t even capitalize it anymore.)


In each of these cases, the brand has so thoroughly dominated the mind of the audience when it comes to the photocopying, tissue, ear-cleaning, instant-photo, and adhesive bandage spaces that their names have become synonymous with the product.


Of course, many of these companies fully invented the product that created the space. But how about the luxury watch? Rolex owns this concept, even though they didn’t invent watches. Same goes for FedEx. They didn’t invent the idea of delivering packages. But they did invent the idea of delivering packages overnight. Easily the most pertinent example for those of us in the ecommerce business is the mighty Amazon—Jeff Bezos didn’t invent shopping. He didn’t even invent online shopping—that was Netmarket.com, which still exists (the first thing they ever sold—and thus the first true ecommerce transaction—was Sting’s 1994 album Ten Summoner’s Tales). But boy, does Amazon ever own the concept of “online shopping” in the mind of the consumer.


Of course, owning a word or phrase isn’t some kind of magic trick that’ll make your company’s problems disappear. But it is an incredibly useful engine to drive the way you think about what it is that your brand does, particularly in the glutted world of ecommerce. Because, ultimately, if you’re not different, or you don’t know how to express the way in which you’re different—well, you might as well not be there at all. Or, to quote Bezos himself, “brand names are more important online than they are in the physical world”.


So fill in the blank: “My brand produces/offers ______, and nobody else does.” If you can’t successfully complete that sentence, it’s time to play a little bit of Advertising Mad Libs (Ad Libs? Wait, that’s already a word) and figure out how to turn a phrase into money.

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