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Differentiate or die?

We as marketers are obsessed with the concept of differentiation. Perhaps it's because this piece of brand wisdom has been drilled into us from an early age or maybe it's because we cannot conceive of developing a marketing strategy or campaign without it? The heightened importance could even be attributed to Jack Trout, one of marketing's godfathers who wrote a no-holds-barred book about it entitled "Differentiate or Die." Whatever the reason, differentiation has become our holy grail - a sacred something that we hope to find and implement in order to guarantee brand success.
With all this emphasis being placed on differentiation, one would think it is easy for brands to stand out from the competitive set and carve unique and differentiated spots for themselves - but this is not always the case for many brands in a multitude of industries. If we take a step back and place ourselves in the consumers' shoes, it is apparent that the differentiation is actually not so different. Consider the skin care category as an example: if we were to remove the logos and taglines from marketing collateral, you would be left with a horde of generic messages and mass of beautiful, half naked people.

Marketers often forget how much time we spend looking at an industry, with the devotion and detail that few people would even think of. This results in great differences perceived by marketers, but to the average consumer, these are actually minor variations that go unnoticed. Very few people can tell you that driving a BMW gives you joy whereas Mercedes-Benz provides sophistication. Nonetheless, marketers remain fixated on realising differentiation through minor brand nuances that can supposedly attain sustainable competitive advantages and elevate brand success.

So if differentiation is not so differentiated, how do marketers get brands to stand out from competitors?

It's actually about being distinctive, not differentiated
Being different isn't enough to create consumer brand preference and stand out. The term distinctive can be defined as "distinguishing characteristics that have a special quality and are markedly individual". Contrasted to 'differentiation', it implies true uniqueness as opposed to a difference. It's distinctiveness that captures the hearts and minds of customers, not differences that are usually overlooked. The local banking industry serves as a great example where being distinct reigns supreme: FNB acknowledged that people viewed the category as being boring. Who wouldn't: after all a bank is a bank is a bank, isn't it? By turning the category on its head and through small, yet significant innovations, FNB could undisputedly be classified as the most stand out banking brand in South Africa. It has turned an uninspiring category into one worth talking about ('Hello Steve!') and people have followed suit by switching over to FNB.

Distinctive brands are noticed and get consumers talking
Instead of differentiating to break through the flock of competitor brands, distinctive brands focus on breaking away completely. They go beyond the category and transcend into our wider culture. For instance, consider how Facebook as a brand has changed our lives. Instead of creating minor differentiated attributes that would distinguish themselves from Myspace, they created a unique brand that seeped into cultures around the world. The same can said for brands like Apple, Nike, Nandos, Starbucks and even Madonna!

Distinctive brands have longevity and move people from being brand users to brand advocates. Think about the small shifts you can do to create a distinctive brand:
  • Look beyond your industry for inspiration - you will not stand out if you are looking at a sea of same-ness
  • Identify what the category norms and stereotypes are; and break them - whether it's re-invention through complete innovation or simply a tweak in process
  • Make curiosity an objective and ensure that your brand activities constantly drive consumer interest
  • Innovate wherever you can - even if it's just a small change in how you approach something
  • Always try to do things differently - you can't be distinct unless you are unconventional and try new things; and
  • Focus on true customer needs and base your brand on real market insight and a brand truth that you can actually deliver - your distinctiveness will not last unless it is credible and real
When people are only focussed on being different, it just makes them all look the same. 'Goth culture' bears testament to this - people who have tried so hard to be different from everyone else that they look the same: dressed in black with multiple piercings and pale skin. The same can be said for brands. In essence, it's not about being different, but rather it's about being distinct and unique. As the great Dr Suess said: "Today you are you, that is truer than true. There is no one alive who is youer than you!" It's about being different by being distinct and not about being different for the sake of differentiation.

Look beyond your industry for inspiration - you will not stand out if you are looking at a sea of same-ness.

    
 

About the author

Nicole Zetler is the Senior Strategist at Yellowwood.

Yellowwood Future Architects' press office

Yellowwood Future Architects
Yellowwood Future Architectsis an independent marketing strategy consultancy with offices in Johannesburg and Cape Town. We help answer marketing's toughest questions to uncover real insight and build powerful, compelling brands that drive real business growth.
Darren Woolley
I absolutely agree 100% Nicole. Being different for the sake of being different is the mistake many brands and agencies make. As a pitch consultant I see too many agencies try to be different from the over-supply of agencies in the market place, when what they should be is distinctive and then be consistent in being distinctive. Think TBWA 'disruption' or Saatchi & Saatchi "love marks'. These are not different as many agencies have similar messages, but by being distinctive and consistent in their communication and relevant in their presentation they become powerful marketing tools.
Posted on 9 Oct 2012 19:28
Nicole Zetler
Thanks for the feedback, Darren. Agreed - this thinking can apply to both the 'client' and 'agency' environments. Everyone is fixated on difference rather than truly trying to stand out...
Posted on 1 Nov 2012 14:10
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