7 Secrets of Unique Brands You Can Use to Stand Out in a Crowded Marketplace

What do legendary icons Apple, Nike, and Virgin have in common? These world-class brands are leading the pack in their respective industries and continue to make a mark.

What’s their secret?

It turns out that these behemoths of the business world have a few tricks up their sleeves around branding and identity that any small business owner can learn from.

I had the opportunity to sit down with sought-after brand strategist Gair Maxwell to unveil their secrets. Our aim? To make it so, small and medium-sized businesses can also become game-changers within their market.

Master Brand Strategist, Gair Maxwell

Master Brand Strategist, Gair Maxwell

“What we’ve done is, we’ve distilled the core elements of what is a big little legend and how anyone can basically tap into a forest that’s been around for centuries,” says Maxwell.

As business operators, we often fall into the trap of believing that standing out is a privilege reserved for big brands alone, attributing their success to hefty marketing budgets, expert knowledge, and the ability to hire specialists. While these advantages have a grain of truth, truly differentiating your business from the competition transcends mere resources and expertise.

Maxwell emphasizes a striking reality: “Executives have poured millions into marketing for years, only to remain unnoticed. Unique selling propositions no longer captivate; quality is expected, not a standout trait. People presume competence—merely listing features, advantages, and benefits won’t draw crowds. It takes more than that to attract customers.”

“The object of a brand strategy, in my view, is to make the customer or the talent come to you,” he says. 

Check out Marc’s full interview with Gair Maxwell

The distinction between direct marketing and brand marketing lies in the unique dynamics they foster with our customers. Brand marketing empowers customers to choose us voluntarily, giving us an advantage by naturally drawing them in rather than pushing messages onto them.

CustomerThermometer revealed that 64% of women and 68% of men have felt an emotional connection with a brand. According to Harvard Business Review, these fully connected consumers are at least 50% more valuable than highly satisfied customers. They are less price-sensitive and are emotionally motivated.

Pull More than You Push

Maxwell adds,  “Direct marketing is more push-driven with the language of the pitch. Brand marketing is the pull. I call it the giant magnet on steroids.”

In 2002, Jim and Donna Gilbert started working with Maxwell, marking the beginning of a transformative journey for their used car business. 

Starting modestly with a team of five, the Gilberts faced the challenge of distinguishing their dealership from 22 others within a hundred-kilometer radius. Despite feeling unique, Jim struggled to convey what set them apart—until they discovered how to harness their inherent values and qualities.

Maxwell quickly spotted the Gilberts’ endearing qualities, such as their tradition of sending handmade, handwritten birthday notes to customers, embodying a warmth and approachability that made them genuinely ‘huggable.’

Canada's Huggable Car Dealer

Canada’s Huggable Car Dealer

By September 2006, they decided to break away from conventional radio advertisements, opting instead to share 30-second stories about “Canada’s Huggable Car Dealer.” These narratives resonated deeply with their audience, casting the Gilberts’ business in a light similar to the enchanting experience of Walt Disney for car dealerships. 

They transformed their 17-acre lot into a welcoming community space, complete with a two-kilometre nature trail, a merry-go-round for children, and hundreds of teddy bears and mascots, all reinforcing their ‘huggable’ brand identity. This approach was not just about selling cars; it was about providing exceptional service and creating a sense of belonging and joy.

While their competitors continued to focus solely on product features, the Gilberts leaned into storytelling that reflected their core values, earning Jim the affectionate nickname “the McDreamy of drive” and establishing a legendary status within the industry. Their unique branding strategy made them the largest independent used car dealer across the four Atlantic Canadian provinces.

Their trailblazing didn’t stop with cars. When they expanded into the Kawasaki market in 2018, they quickly became the top Kawasaki dealer in Canada by 2020. Through authenticity, community engagement, and storytelling, the Gilberts differentiated their business and created a beloved brand that stands as a testament to the power of embracing one’s unique values and qualities.

The 7 Secrets Revealed

Maxwell shares with everyday business owners how they can join the big league of brand champions like Apple and Nike in their own space.

  1. Building your future from a place of truth and aligning it with your values is the perfect place to start.

“When you are invested in your story, it’s got some gumption, some grit. It’s got some actuality. It’s grounded in truth. It’s got to come from a real place. And must be aligned with those values. Then turn it into a long-form narrative based on two to six words. Soon, everything that you invest in the future will be building equity,” says Maxwell.

  1. Speaking in the language of metaphor enables you to express something bigger than yourself. 

Using metaphors helps you share complex ideas and values in a way that really speaks to people, making a deeper connection with your audience. When you use symbols and metaphors, you lift your message up, giving it a stronger impact than just using plain words. 

Famous leaders like FDR, JFK, and MLK have used this method to inspire people and bring them together for bigger causes. Maxwell believes that metaphors make your brand or message pop, giving it its own special identity in a busy market. If you don’t use this creative way of speaking, your message might just blend in with everything else, failing to grab people’s attention or spark their imagination, thrusting you into the “sea-of-sameness.”

How to Move Your Marketing Efforts from Helpless to Hopeful to Productive

  1. It’s the leader’s responsibility to build irresistible brands by identifying who you are beyond your products and services.

Identify what’s “in you” that will set you apart in the industry. Discover what unique qualities you possess that can differentiate you in your industry. Embrace authenticity and utilize your inherent strengths. 

By tapping into these aspects, you can develop something truly captivating. This challenge extends beyond mere marketing; it’s fundamentally about leadership.

“The business leaders have to recognize it’s their responsibility to build brand marketing which is the giant magnet on steroids,” says Maxwell.

  1. Stories never end and continue to answer your customers’ needs.

You have a story that keeps going, spreading and growing. Nike’s famous “Just Do It” slogan is a perfect example. It’s stayed the same powerful message, whether it’s inspiring a young boy running, celebrating an athlete like Jordan, or supporting Colin Kaepernick’s fight for social justice.

  1. Leverage the free online platforms to reach a wider audience.

There’s no reason not to be online. “Really, none at all. It’s free to get started, simple to use, and widely accessible,” Maxwell encourages businesses to tap into digital channels to connect with their audience.

Instead of spending a lot on ads and paid media, there’s a smarter approach that doesn’t break the bank but still meets your objectives.

According to Smallbizgenius, showing your brand consistently online can boost your income by as much as 23%.

  1. Stories capture people’s hearts. They are engaging, shareable and reach more of your audience.

Maxwell describes this as crafting a strategic narrative, starting with uncovering your own unique story. This should reflect who you are and the principles you stand by. Such stories forge strong bonds with your customers. Small biz Genius notes that 89% of customers remain faithful to brands that align with their values.

Everyone loves a compelling story. It’s something we’ve all grown up with, and it’s ingrained in us. A powerful story gets shared, especially with others who can relate to it. Maxwell recounts how Gilbert shared an experience of being approached by people while eating out. Gilbert said, “I’ve been doing radio ads for a long time, but no one ever approached me to talk about those ads. They talked to me now, because those weren’t just ads; they were stories.”

  1. Knowing the common things your competitors are saying can reveal what you can uniquely become.

The trick is to communicate in a way that’s completely different from your competitors.

Maxwell suggests, “Look at how your competitors talk on their websites and note what’s common among them. This exercise helps you figure out what you don’t want to be. If you don’t make that choice, you’ll never find out what you could really be.”

Many businesses focus too much on what they offer, like their products, services, and skills. However, they often forget to talk about their purpose. Simon Sinek in his book, “Start With Why,” explains that people aren’t just buying what you do; they’re buying why you do it.

In conclusion, the journey from obscurity to iconic status in the business world is less about the size of your marketing budget and more about the depth of your brand’s identity and the authenticity of your story. Apple, Nike, and Virgin have shown us that success is built on a foundation of distinct values, relentless innovation, and an unwavering commitment to communicating a compelling narrative that resonates with people on a deeply emotional level.

In a sea of sameness, it’s those who dare to be different, to speak to the why behind their what, and to connect with their audience on a level that goes beyond the transactional who will emerge as the next generation of iconic brands. The secret, it seems, is no secret at all: it’s about authenticity, innovation, and the courage to tell your story in a way that captivates and inspires.

About Gair Maxwell

Endlessly curious about the creation of legends and myths, Gair Maxwell is a global authority for helping organizations create iconic brands that attract legions of customers and top talent – without having to resort to using any “pushy” marketing tactics. The trickle-down impact on any company, community or career can be enormous. Some organizations have achieved 15-20X financial growth while becoming a much desired “Category of One”.

Connect with Gair

  • https://www.gairmaxwell.com/
  • Gair@GairMaxwell.com
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Get Gair’s book, Big Little Legends: How Everyday Leaders Build Irresistible Brands.


About the Author

Marc is a customer experience expert, keynote speaker, consultant, and author of Lights! Camera! Action! With 35 years of experience in hospitality, retail, and other customer-facing industries, Marc has created unique frameworks to help organizations build lasting connections to become THE brand of choice.Get Marc's Book

Marc’s energetic, humorous, and authentic delivery makes him relatable and fun. He empowers business operators with unique tools to create jaw-dropping, show-stopping experiences their customers and employees deserve.

Marc’s podcasts, Marc Haine Live and Experience Leadership: The Small Business Podcast, have over 100,000 views worldwide.

Marc is the 2023 Community Spirit Award recipient in his local community. He is the co-founder and president of several non-profit organizations, such as: Walk the Talks and East of 60 Productions Society. He sits on the provincial and national boards of the Canadian Association of Professional Speakers (CAPS).

Marc is one of the world’s foremost authorities on customer journey experience touchpoints and is the author of LIGHTS! CAMERA! ACTION! Business Operational Excellence through the Lens of Live Theatre (Check out the new way of looking at your business HERE).
Marc is offering a free 30-minute brainstorming session with you and your team.
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Marc is a service expert and a master of experiences. He's also an author, speaker, facilitator and coach. He will help your teams ignite their passions, enable your leaders to recentre their focus, and drive continuous improvement through connected and engaged employees. This will allow you to realize your competitive advantage with a connected purpose and consistency of customer experience across your brand. He will dare your people to cultivate a generous attitude and lead with love and kindness first.

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