Stuck in the Middle

The worst place you can be as a business is stuck in the middle. 

It’s that weird place where you offer everything and try to appeal to everybody. 

But in the end, you find yourself watering down your offering and appealing to nobody. You get stuck in-between markets. 

I’ve often witnessed this in new businesses. They are afraid to make choices about their target markets. Instead of trying to be the ‘best pizza place in town for the most discerning pizza lovers’ they expand their menu to include Chinese, hamburgers, Ukrainian and more. 

The logic they use is ‘well what if somebody is also looking for a burger?’

It’s easy to ask that question. Any kitchen can deliver a burger. 

Is it going to be the best burger? The burger that burger lovers crave? Maybe (although it’s doubtful). You rarely think of the restaurant who offers pizza, Chinese and hamburgers as THE place to go to go for an amazing burger.

Strategy is all about choice. It’s the art (and science) of choosing what not to do. 

The first question you need to answer is who doesn’t matter to you. Who don’t you want to serve?

Nike recently made a strong, values-based choice about who they weren’t interested in serving: Trumpholes. 

They drew a hard line in the sand and eliminated a fairly large chunk of Americans from their target audience. The PR value of this was enormous (hundreds of millions in earned media) but it was more than a stunt. 

Nike planted a flag. 

They’ve become a rally point for younger, progressive, ethnically-diverse, influencers and tastemakers. Furthermore, they’ve cemented their relationships with a group of athletes who have enormous influence with their target audience.

Is it risky to be so hard lined? Absolutely. Making a strong choice like Nike may not work for your business. Or it might.

But, being stuck in the middle of whether you are a pizza joint or a Chinese food restaurant is riskier than choosing greatness in one or the other. 

Choice is how you build a strong brand. 

Promise. Deliver. Repeat.

They say that if the only tool you have is a hammer then every problem looks like a nail. This couldn’t be more true for much of the branding work that gets done. Especially by creative agencies.

Often the creation of a brand is a shallow exercise in coming up with a fancy new logo; perhaps with some BS rationale of yada yada.

These ‘exercises’ are led by designers who seem to think that branding is about trying to create a logo that portrays the company’s spirit animal or something like that.

Branding doesn’t start with questions like ’if you were a car which car would you be’ or ‘describe your company as an animal’.

This is not branding.

Rather branding should start with the question of ‘who do you want to serve?’ 

Who is your ideal customer? What are their goals? What are their hopes and dreams? What do they want today or in the future? What pain are they feeling? What’s stopping them from moving towards their goals? What is keeping them up at night?

And then…

What meaningful promise can you make to that customer to help them? 

The promise can’t be a lie. It has to be real. Rooted in the truth. It has to be something that you can either own today or in the near future. 

Once you have that promise, the major question you need to answer is how can you align every part of your company to keep that promise. 

Promise. Deliver. Repeat.

That’s branding.

Repetition Legitimizes

Say what you will about Donald Trump, but he understands one basic and fundamental rule of marketing: repetition legitimizes.

He’s learned that simple messages can have a large impact if they’re repeated enough.

‘Crooked Hilary’, ‘Slippery Comey'. ‘No Collusion’. ‘Witch Hunt’ or even his campaign tagline ‘Make America Great Again’ these are all part of his branding narrative to spread fear, uncertainty and doubt. And when said with enough frequency they start to become ‘true’. They start to be parroted by others. They stick.

What can we learn from this? 

First, I’m not suggesting that you be like Donald and start spreading misinformation. 

Consumers have little tolerance for companies who tell lies. 

Building a great brand is all about promise and deliver. Make a promise and then deliver on it. If you can repeat this on a consistent basis you will become known for the promise you make.

For example, if your promise is ‘Saskatoon’s best ice cream’ you better serve the most amazing ice cream. Ice cream to die for. Deliver on that and your reviews and recommendations will roll in. Fail to deliver and your promise becomes ‘just another ice cream place’. 

The steps for choosing a promise are fodder for a different blog post, but once you’ve chosen your core promise (or perhaps it chose you) the key is to align your organization to deliver.

You need to figure out how to embed your promise in everything you do. It’s not enough to just focus on your marketing. You need to think holistically.

It’s the only way you’ll be able to afford enough frequency.

If ’friendly’ is a major pillar of your promise and customers call into your shop greeted by cranky customer service representatives, no amount of marketing will solve this problem.

Remember, the key is consistent repetition across your organization. You need to make ‘friendly’ a part of your organization’s core DNA. Choose your story and then REALLY stick to it. 


It’s a bit like hitting a drum. One hit is just random noise. But, when repeated it becomes a beat. If everybody in your organization plays the same beat it becomes something you can hear down the street. 

Bang that drum. Repetition legitimizes.