The 3 ingredients of every successful brand

Every successful brand that has ever been, or ever will be, is made up of the same three ingredients: truths, wants and differences.

Power of three

From the most iconic global brands to the very latest startups — across all sectors, including professional services, if you look closely at any well-positioned brand, its narrative is woven out of these three fundamental particles.

Truths – what it does really, really well

Wants – what its customers really, really want

Differences – what spark of uniqueness it possesses

The power of branding is that done well, it weaves a single-minded brand narrative through all three of these at the same time and positions your brand at the intersection.

That doesn’t mean that all brands are the same — far from it. Just as you, me, a chair and the planet Jupiter are all very different — but all made up of the same three particles: electrons, protons and neutrons — so the three ingredients of every brand can combine in myriad ways.

You can apply this framework to both analysing and developing successful brands in any sector, including professional services.

Apple is always a good example of anything in branding and a perfect case to illustrate the three fundamental particles:

Truths — Steve Job’s mantra of “insanely great products” translated into a passionate obsession with quality and innovation from day one of Apple. The stories are well documented — from the hugely ambitious concepts of ‘a thousand songs in your pocket’ (iPod) to the specification of a new kind of ‘gorilla glass’ that didn’t even exist at the time — Apple set out to raise the bar on quality and innovation in technology from day one and were never satisfied with, or limited by, market norms or “good enough.”

Wants — Apple isn’t a mass-market product; it’s a premium, high-spec, high-price brand. But despite there initially being tons of pressures to meet the market in the middle — and compete head to head with the other computer and phone manufacturers, Apple’s insight was that there was a big enough group of customers who would be prepared to pay a considerable premium for essentially a similar product in terms of the fundamental product features, as long as they believed it was the absolute best on the market. Whether by luck or by judgment Apple realised that as disposable incomes rose, first in the West and then globally (at least for the middle-classes), people could afford to pay hundreds of pounds/dollars/yen more for their products – if they really, really wanted to.

Differences — in a word, Apple’s difference is in design. Not superficial design — graphics and colours — but a fundamentally design-led approach to technology that was at first unique and even decades later is still illusively tricky for competitors to copy. In a 1995 interview with PBS Steve Jobs talked about the difference between Apple and Microsoft, saying that “the only difference with Microsoft is they just have no taste.” Call it good taste or good design, throughout its history – initially inspired by Jobs and then institutionalised in the culture – Apple has always applied a deep focus on the design and usability of its products in a way that its customers loved and its competitors couldn’t match.

Think difference

You can apply this framework to both analysing and developing successful brands in any sector, including professional services.

Truths – what your firm does really, really well. Where you have genuine strengths and cutting-edge capabilities.

Wants – what clients believe they really want that will help them succeed. The ideas, expectations and perceptions that sit in their heads.

Differences – what makes you uniquely better placed than your competitors to deliver and therefore worth paying a premium for (among those that can also do what you do for the clients you serve).

The first two, truths and wants, are all about strategy, in that they are a lot to do with data-driven and insight-based choices and decisions made.

To be a successful brand, you need a strand of difference to combine with the other two ingredients.

Truths are all about building a powerful offer — being dammed good at something. Not uniquely good though. Monopolies aside, it’s impossible to be uniquely good at anything any more. It’s also nigh on impossible to be dammed good at lots of things. That’s where the idea of strategy being about ‘choosing what not to do’ comes in and, as I’ve covered previously, a notoriously difficult discipline for leaders of professional service firms to adopt.

The branding challenge in defining your firm’s truths is finding a way to balance authentic and credible focus with an inevitable desire to include as much of the firm’s capabilities as possible.

Wants are all about understanding your market intimately, and being able to anticipate where it’s going so that your ‘truths’ are in high demand and worth paying a premium for. A critically important component of any brand and business strategy but also ultimately another elusive place to look for sustainable differentiation because everyone has access to the same customers and market intelligence.

Here the brand challenge is to find the right brand narrative that connects with your clients as they see things, from their perspective, not yours. Often that means focusing on benefits rather than features.

Differences are often more about culture than pure strategy, at least at source. Often genuine differences have deep roots going right back to the foundation of a brand — in the case of a professional services firm, often going right back to its founders even when they are long-since passed. McKinsey’s obsession with ‘rigour’, Goldman’s ‘uncompromising’ approach, Wachtell’s ‘port in a storm’ idea. One of the challenges of sustaining a potential source of differentiation like this once the founders have left the firm is first to identify and ‘bottle it.’

Founders do not need to define it; they just ‘live it.’ But subsequent leaders, even if they grew up with the firm, often need help in spotting and capturing the difference and making it relevant to the world as it is today.

To be a successful brand, you need a strand of difference to combine with the other two ingredients. Without it, you’ll be positioning yourself as just one more firm in a ‘field of many’ rather than in a ‘field of one.’

Try it out. Whether on your firm’s brand, some of your competitors or any brand you come across. It’s a remarkably simple and robust framework for dissecting a brand into its components and particularly useful in helping separate the important but inevitably more similar components (truths and wants) from the secret sauce (differences).



Ian Stephens

CEO and Founder of Principia, the world's leading strategic consultancy specialising in brand-led transformation for knowledge-led businesses.