Whether in boxing, baseball, or football, the best athletes in the world don’t reach their exalted status by training and practice alone. They do so by knowing their opponents, inside and out. They spend hours upon hours studying film, analyzing the strategies and tendencies of those they’re up against. They come to know the strengths, weaknesses, and signature moves of the competition as well as they know their own. And when the timing is right, they capitalize on opportunities with instinctual efficiency.

When it comes to branding, knowing your competition is just as critical. Only by understanding the characteristics, behaviors, and identities that comprise your competitive landscape can you hope to discover opportunities for boldly differentiating your brand. It’s these insights that will guide you during the rebranding process. Here, we’ll look at how the competitive brand audit gives you the inside track to build a truly authentic brand. It’s a five-step process that can determine whether you land a knockout punch with your brand rollout or hang your head in defeat on your way back to the locker room.

Step 1: Identify Competitors and Similar Brands

This part is usually pretty easy. Survey the competitive landscape and come up with a list of companies that offer the same products or services as your brand. The length of the list depends entirely on which vertical you’re operating in—you want the list to be comprehensive but not unreasonable. If the list is a long one, you’ll want to prioritize your top five to ten competitors and focus on those for the more in-depth parts of the audit. You may think your brand offers such niche products or services that “competition” in the traditional sense does not exist. But no brand operates in a vacuum. There are always relevant similar brands that can be considered in the audit process.

Step 2: Experience the Competition

For each of the competitors you identify, the first goal is to experience the brand as its target audience does. A little search engine savvy should turn up most of what you need. Spend some time on company websites, social media channels, press releases, videos, etc. Compile assets in separate folders for later analysis. It probably goes without saying that the more thorough you are in gathering information, the more useful your findings will be. Harvest examples of competitor brand language and visual identity for a closer look. What type of examples? Whatever you can get your hands on. For starters:

Brand Language

  • Brand and product names
  • Taglines, slogans, descriptors
  • Marketing copy
  • Advertising scripts
  • Speeches and presentations
  • Key messaging including vision, mission, values, etc.

Visual Identity

  • Logos
  • Colors
  • Imagery
  • Typography
  • Symbols
  • Shapes

And don’t stop there. Visit retail outlets, use products and services, experience the sales process, talk to customer service, etc. On top of that you’ll want to determine how the company has structured its brand architecture and naming system. Is the architecture of sub-brands and products intuitive and cross-promotional or confusing and fractured? What types of brand names does the company use? Each insight into how your competitors’ brands manifest is another opportunity for differentiation.

Step 3: Analyze Brand Language

The brand language analysis examines the verbal communication used by each of your competitors with the goal of distilling insights as to its messaging, tone, and voice. In analyzing the materials you gathered in Step 2, you’re looking for key learnings about the company and its products or services, as well as the overarching brand voice in which this information is delivered. Here are some questions you might want to consider as you parse a competitor’s brand language:

Step 4: Analyze Visual Identity

The visual identity analysis examines the logos, colors, typography, and imagery utilized by each of your competitors. Visual grouping and segmentation allows you to see patterns that emerge. By identifying patterns you’ll be able to find opportunities for radical differentiation within the market landscape puzzle. Some questions to ask when parsing competitors’ visual identities include:

  • Which shapes and symbols are most common in the logos of brands in your vertical?
  • Which brand colors seem to dominate the field?
  • How have competitor brands differentiated themselves through the use of typography?
  • How does each brand employ imagery and photography?
  • How do their logos make you feel?
  • What types of personalities do these brand identities evoke?
  • How would you characterize the overall website experience of each brand?
  • How successfully do competitor brands leverage the sequence of cognition?

Step 5: Determine Positioning

The final step is where you draw your conclusions as to the positioning of each brand that you’ve audited. The culmination of your findings takes the form of the brand audit readout, a visually compelling synthesis of insights. The brand audit readout presents a high-level overview of the visual and linguistic personality of each brand you’ve audited in the context of the competitive field as a whole. It illuminates both the similarities and points of differentiation amongst your competition, giving you a comprehensive picture of the market landscape and, more importantly, the opportunities that exist within it.

Conclusion

Trying to position a brand in a highly competitive landscape is an intimidating proposition. It can feel like you’re the wiry underdog in a field of muscular, undisputed champions. Taking time to size up the competition is a critically important tactic. The competitive brand audit empowers you to spot opportunities in the competitive landscape, position your brand accordingly, and land a blow that will leave your competitors looking for their mouthpieces.

The Definitive Guide to Rebranding

Everything you need to know about rebranding your business-and avoiding costly mistakes.

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A prolific blogger, speaker, and columnist, Brian has more than a decade of experience in design and branding. He’s written for publications including Forbes, Huffington Post, and Brand Quarterly.