Chasing the Unicorn: Why Some Companies Rise to the Top While Others Fall Behind

2015 was a rough year for everyone; even the world’s top tier brands experienced a hit or two. While Unicorn Brands—that is, companies that make so much money so quickly, they don’t appear to be real—might not have had their best year financially, they did prove their longevity, their steadfast determination to stay on our radar and revolutionize the digital world for good. It seems incredible that a company that doesn’t necessarily make any money, doesn’t own any assets, or has only been around a few years can generate billions of dollars in market value and be placed in the vaulted ‘Unicorn’ category. Yet according to a recent piece on TechCrunch [1], approximately 84 US based companies have held on to the coveted title. In other words, they’ve broken the billion-dollar threshold. And they won’t let us forget it.

Facebook—the super Unicorn of them all—is still perhaps the most famous rise-to-the-top success story, but every day, more and more of these companies seem to be emerging, disrupting, and establishing themselves on the consumer and business landscape. Perhaps a few of the names ring a bell: Uber, Square, Twitter, Airbnb, Slack, or Cloudera.

Whether or not you’re an Uber frequent rider, you’ve likely heard of the seemingly overnight success story because let’s face it: most everyone has. They’re everywhere you look. But what really separates Uber from just another Taxi, or Square from those other guys? (Ever heard of Spark Pay or iZettle? We didn’t think so.)

With more and more companies popping up each day, it’s almost impossible to stand out by product alone unless your business has zero competition—and that’s just not happening. Brands that rise above their competitors do more than make a great product: they define themselves as a unique force in the market, a company that is independent of its competitors [2] and unafraid to declare, “this is me!”

In the world of Unicorns, we see this same phenomenon repeated time and time again: one brand in each category emerges as the leader, and it’s not because they’re better from a tech standpoint or because they have a superior product, but because they have a clear focus and they’re better designed.

Square, Uber, Twitter, Slack—they all have one very important thing in common: they’ve found their essentials. These standout brands have the advantage of focus. They don’t try to do fifty things sort-of well, but one specific thing very well. They’ve found what their company does best and they’ve made that their core positioning strategy. They have an eagle-eye focus on the very specific, essential benefits that they bring to the table. That’s exactly the sort of confidence customers want to hear about—it’s the kind they can believe in.

Both Uber and Square—and most of our Unicorns—incorporate that sense of essential focus in all basic messaging. By knowing exactly who they are and what they do, these companies have honed in on their skillset and removed all the extras. Their websites are streamlined and efficient, the kind that change customer expectations for the better. They’re easy-to-view, clean, and free of unnecessary clutter. Rather than a lot of flashy messages, these websites provide simple how-to instructions: easy to follow steps and even easier benefits. This is consumer contentment done right.

With the right design strategy, the next “Unicorn” can differentiate themselves from the general market and rise straight to the top. Great design experiences make interacting with a brand something the consumer “wants” to do rather than “has” to do. Companies at the top of the game recognize the value of design and are now investing heavily in building the best user experience possible. Great user experience encourages return visits, and returns mean power.

By embracing great design, brands can begin to look and act like leaders. Unicorns are rare, but if current trends are anything to go off of, they’re not fleeting. The members of the Unicorn Club teach us all how to be essential: they demand to be heard, and they make it easy to listen.

How can effective design make your brand essential?