Dan Ptak, Global VP of Marketing at Solstice | Kin + Carta, led The CMO Club virtual roundtable, Professional Services – How Do You Differentiate in Highly Commoditized Marketing, where he said brands can use substance, style and tactics to differentiate themselves.


Brands must lead with their beliefs – their “why,” Ptak said.

“This is the most critical thing we need to nail as marketers,” he said.

While it can be tempting to talk about the nuts and bolts, and frameworks, Ptak said it’s important to take a step back and lead with that “why” and our core beliefs.

Tony Kempa, Managing Director, head of marketing, business development, and brand

at ESD, shared his experience during the roundtable, having started the process about five years ago of discovering their “why,” and in the time since, examining what connects ESD’s people to its clients.

“You have to hear what your clients are saying, what’s resonating with them, and look at what you offer in value,” Kempa said. “Then be able to internally get people to understand that and articulate that value to their clients as well.”

It’s also important to be client-centric, rather than company-centric, Ptak said. Replace “we” with “you” in talking about client services.

Ptak said success in this part of the process can often be attributed to the creativity of the strategist or planner that’s working on it.

“We need to be pushing ourselves to make sure that we’re injecting creativity in this phase in the process,” he said.


Once you feel you have a strong “why” and brand essence, or truly have an offering or capability that’s different from the market, the next phase is about thinking creatively with your creative directors, art directors, etc, Ptak said.

“We’re a small challenger brand, and we need to act like that – be bold and brash,” Ptak said of Solstice. “These brands are very much a reflection of us and our personalities as marketers.”

If that creativity isn’t in the bones of the organization, we can wrestle with this piece, he said. It has to feel authentic, but also has to look different, sound different and stand out.

“It’s really about knowing our personas,” he said. “We need to go do our homework before we can put this out there.”


Finally, Ptak discussed differentiating through tactics and execution.“You either are the news or you’re making the news,” Ptak said.

Solstice is always engaged in conversations about what they’re doing, or what they’re launching, he said. This can be critical to persuasion.

At the same time, leverage your “halo effect” from events, campaigns, people, offerings, clients, wins, and headlines.

Ptak compared two types of marketing, the “peanut butter effect” where efforts are spread evenly, versus the “lightning strike,” choosing a few events each year and going all in for the halo effect.

Lisa Kaplan, Vice President Marketing & Strategy at M. Holland Company, shared her organization’s experience with the halo effect.

When the organization re-branded in 2018, they had a big internal launch, external launch and press launch, using several events together to create a bigger impact.

“We also created an engagement that persisted long after the September launch that occurred,” Kaplan said. “It was really successful.”

Ptak agreed, sharing that Solstice pours its effort into its one big annual event.

“That enables us to have more conversations in the next six months than investing that same amount in five different events,” he said.