Branding any business is not an easy task. It takes dedication, time and a true understanding of what branding is and how a strong brand image is developed. The biggest issue with most firms is that once they start down the road of building their brand, they never look any further than their own four walls.

And that is a critical mistake.

Part of any dedicated brand effort is attention to the outside world. Firms that are on top of branding often ask: What is everyone else doing? Just look at the consumer market: Pepsi keeps an eye on Coke, Walmart on Target, Dell on Apple, and so on. Dedicated competitive analysis allows firms to identify what they are doing right or wrong and stay current on everything from cool new Web navigation and media to unique service models and communication initiatives.

A sound brand cannot be developed unless you step out into the sun once in a while. Unless you are a caterpillar, you can't expect brand metamorphosis by staying nestled within the protective cocoon that is your firm.

WHAT BRANDING IS (AND ISN'T)

Before entering into a discussion about the importance of competitive brand analysis, it's a good idea to revisit the core definition of branding itself. A detailed narrative or analysis won't do a whole lot of good if you're scratching your head in confusion about what branding is.

There is no simple definition for a brand, and that's because a brand is so much more than what most believe it to be - a logo. A brand is better thought of as a set of fundamental principles understood by all those who come in contact with a given business. For example, the principles associated with brand-leading firms include use of innovative technology, professional and creative communications, premium services, an advanced client platform (e.g., portals), a killer Web site, and exceptional customer service. All of these elements combined create a certain expectation of quality in the minds of clients, prospects and the profession as a whole. And that's a brand.

STOP, LOOK, COMPARE, REPEAT

With a better understanding of what a brand is, it becomes clear that consistent, dedicated effort is required to progressively build a strong brand image. It's a lot of responsibility, which is why competitive analysis is so critical. No one firm can expect to be a brand leader in every area. It's important to see what others are doing to spark new ideas, identify new technologies or media, pick up innovative marketing ideas, and so on. Trust me, others are watching what you're doing.

Now, back to the core message.

Being aware of competitors' brand-building efforts is essential in brand-to-brand combat. Through honest, relevant comparisons, it's easier to identify your own areas of weakness and strength. Good ideas come from everywhere; you just have to put some effort into looking.

Consider a few tips:

Break out of the cocoon. Isolation isn't the best plan for brand advancement. It's hard to know what's going on and the changes taking place in the profession when you're confined within the walls of your firm. What you think is new and progressive just might be outdated. Even worse, once you stick your head out of the hole, you might learn that your firm looks like everyone else's - and that's what we call "vanilla hell." Break out of the cocoon now and again to stay educated on what other firms are doing. A healthy knowledge of the competition is key to brand success.

Sheep mentality. If you think it's okay to look and sound like everyone else, then you probably do. Blending into the landscape means prospects can't see you. And

when no one stands out from the crowd, most potential buyers are driven to make decisions based on convenience - that is, whoever appears first on the list. Don't be a sheep. Differentiate yourself from other firms with a strong and meaningful brand. Bust out of the conventional color mold and really make people stop and stare - in a good way.

Look to the leaders. Part of the competitive analysis process is identifying who is kicking butt. There is no shame in imitation. The best ideas are often recycled from someone who did it first and did it well. Firms that are leading the branding movement will tend to stay there. If the firm's brand image is strong, then someone is doing the work, and that means they are a great source.

Brand maintenance is the key takeaway here. Whether your firm has a long-term, rock-solid brand or you are just starting the branding process, be aware that ongoing maintenance is required. Also, be aware that making competitive analysis part of the maintenance process is critical. Be sure to consistently ask such questions as: What are other firms doing? Is my brand unique, or do I look and sound like everyone else? What can I learn from other leading firms?

In brand-to-brand combat, the best way to emerge as a winner is to be sure that you are leading the pack and not blending in with all the sheep.

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