Questioning The Quest For Brand Differentiation

Mark Di SommaApril 14, 20146856 min

For some time now, brands have pursued difference. Spurred on initially by Jack Trout, they’ve positioned, disrupted, innovated…all with that elusive goal in mind. To stand out and stand apart from their competitors. Benefits, positioning, pyramids, strategies…a lot of time and energy has gone into trying to help brands achieve difference. Everyone’s been on that quest to become a Purple Cow.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m a Seth Godin fan and, inspired by that, the call for differentiation has been a recurrent theme in my own work, but there’s no denying that for the most part marketers have failed to live up to Godin’s call to recolor the livestock. Nigel Hollis has written previously here on Branding Strategy Insider that less than 1 in 5 brands is seen as distinctive by consumers.

One can of course read that as proof that Godin’s call is as relevant (and challenging) as ever. Or one can take it as meaning that the quest for difference is simply not one that works for the majority of marketers.

Three reasons why remarkable difference might be unattainable:

  • Marketers get tempted into pursuing difference for difference’s sake and take their eye off the very people who buy their brands.
  • Difference isn’t a motivation for consumers. People don’t go to the supermarket to buy what’s different. They buy what they know and what appeals to them. They buy what they remember. Different or not.
  • In a world of product parity, increasing regulation, impatient investors and embedded management orthodoxy, meaningful difference is too hard to achieve. Consider this characteristically provocative statement from Mark Ritson: “[True] repositioning is almost always impossible. No matter how attractive it appears or how commonly we use the term in marketing, the actual business of changing a brand’s DNA and being successful is ridiculous…actually changing a brand from black to white…is a ludicrous notion. Even when you can fool the people into believing the change has occurred…you cannot change the fundamental nature of the way a brand does business.”

So what’s the alternative? Conformity? Hardly. Perhaps a little more latitude – and more focus on the human condition.

A moment’s digression please to make a point. We live in a world filled with technology and connections and ideas yet one that, in so many ways and places, remains unexciting for such long stretches. On reflection, so many of the situations we find ourselves in are routine. Catching a plane is boring once you’ve done it a few times. Commuting is boring. Work cultures are uninspiring. Most of the advertising we see is boring. As Susan Ertz once observed, “Millions long for immortality who don’t know what to do with themselves on a rainy Sunday afternoon.”

You can read that as reality. Or opportunity.

After all, as human beings, we long for things that catch our eye. We will find time to do things that make our hearts beat faster. We live for what makes us feel alive. We want to be inspired by purpose.

Sometimes a brand delivers that elation. Most of the time it doesn’t – and neither do any of the brands around it. So as Martin Weigel rightly points out in this fantastic two part post, “Rather than spend all that time noodling brand opinions and agonizing over the largely irrelevant nuance of ‘difference’ between our brand and the competition, we should be spending far more time thinking about what people are interested in.”

Weigel’s post provoked three very simple and interconnected questions:

  • Why can’t life be more interesting?
  • Why can’t brands have a role to play in that?
  • Isn’t that where their real value (for consumers) should lie?

There will be those who say that this is just difference by another name. Perhaps it is. But then if “difference” isn’t working as a motivation, maybe other words are exactly what is needed. For me, difference is competitor-focused, whereas interesting is recipient-focused. That’s why, the search for interesting delves wider and deeper:

  • It’s about what fascinates, surprises and delights, which starts with really knowing what people feel now and is prompted by what they would like to feel, not by presenting them with something that contradicts what they know.
  • It’s not just about the product or service, it’s about the environment that it is delivered in, the manner in which it is delivered or what comes with the product or service – in other words, it’s about how the experience augments the offering. That doesn’t necessarily mean that the experience is markedly different.
  • There may be a high level of familiarity and/or conformity that some brands must work to because the channel or regulation rules out divergence, so the point of interest may need to be specific and personal.
  • Interest can be generated in a range of ways beyond what the product/service is or how it’s delivered – by opinion; by story; by association; by controversy (planned or otherwise); by endorsement (think about the power of the Oprah factor); by serendipity.

And what about brands that have little room for differentiation? How do you make tea different? How do you make rocks different? In this article on Copyblogger, Sean D’Souza tackles those very issues and suggests that far from resisting the ordinary, we should look for the points of beauty there. “Look for the mundane”, he suggests, and elevate them. I translate that as – find the smallest way to be interesting.

In fact, keep finding them. Because the secret to being interesting lies in one preceding word – continually. Keep shipping ideas, improvements, tweaks, news, ideas that add to what people get in skips rather than bounds. That to me is the secret to success in today’s upgrade culture. I call this “pleasure streaming”.

My colleague Derrick Daye made a great point in a conversation we had over the weekend. “Marketers have got into the habit of just marketing what they have or would like to have. But effective brand strategy isn’t about competing for the existing value created by others, it’s about finding ways to create a new sense of value.”

And perhaps, in the light of the lack of Purple Cows, that new sense of value isn’t grandiose. Perhaps it’s about making differences that are more manageable, tangible and practical. Perhaps we should stop looking for an epic and dramatic “big bang” difference. One size of difference may not fit all.

If the real goal is value and interest, then perhaps more companies should be calling off the search for their Blue Ocean Strategy – because in reality they’re never going to get through the paperwork or the resistance to revolution to make it happen anyway. Instead, they could direct their energies to finding and delivering small moments of interest wherever and whenever they can; moments of interest that create wonderful little changes.

In the world. In cultures. For customers.

Imagine how competitive your brand would be, and how much more interesting the world might become during the lulls that make so much of life routine, if your senior leadership operated from this simple mantra. Let’s kill something dull.

I certainly think it’s possible to create value with this question. “What are we doing today [and every day] to be more interesting [to our people and our buyers] than we were yesterday?”

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Mark Di Somma


  • Bob Worth

    April 14, 2014 at 8:40 pm

    A thought provoking article. But on balance it does seem like differentiation by another name. And actually ‘difference’, done correctly, is recipient-focused anyway – the positioning battleground is in the prospect’s mind, as Trout says.

  • markdisomma

    April 14, 2014 at 10:54 pm

    Thanks for your feedback Bob. The contrast here, for me is between “big bang” difference seeking and incremental changes. Which have more positive effect for a brand with consumers? The dramatic changes or the small surprises? As I said, I don’t think one size of difference fits all. Incidentally I don’t in any way think that “killing dull” is easy. The irony is that it may actually be just as challenging but somehow feel more real for marketers.

  • Steve Chayer

    April 15, 2014 at 7:41 am

    Another excellent post, Mark and one that certainly lightens my load. I’ve been struggling to differentiate our dance school against encroaching competition by identifying big bang differences and opportunities. It just isn’t happening unless we go too far afield. I’d pretty much settled on ‘educating the customer as to the differences, assuming that they think all dance schools are the same. This article validates my chosen direction and gives me a framework or theme to work within.

    • Ted Manasa

      April 15, 2014 at 9:00 am

      Steve, be careful. Ask yourself how well business will go when your customers look at your brand and say, “Oh look; yet another dance studio.” Differentiation isn’t difficult, nor time consuming. It just seems hard when you or your marketing team start out believing that you brand doesn’t have anything different to offer. But if you have customers already, you’re probably wrong about that. They obviously think you are different, or they would go somewhere else for less money. Identify that difference and brand yourself on it.

  • Ted Manasa

    April 15, 2014 at 8:50 am

    Thanks for writing this interesting article. I do question the value of “incremental differentiation” as a strategy, however. If you argue that “difference isn’t a motivation for consumers,” even if the difference is big, then why would the customer be motivated by a small difference? The issue with branding on small differences is that people come to expect the brand to make small differences, and nothing more, which creates three major problems for the brand:

    1) Crashing marketing ROI. Marketing ROI is driven by how much attention the marketing generates. Incremental difference generates little attention, which makes an incremental strategy very expensive. Have a look at Dell computer: they succeeded on their big difference (direct sales), fell back on incremental differentiation once everyone else sold directly, and now has no brand strategy to speak of–I spoke to one of their marketing managers about it recently. When Dell advertises, no one pays attention. Do you?

    2) Getting left behind. Unless the brand is a heritage brand (e.g., Burberry), whose brand value comes from not straying too far from the brand’s roots, a brand known for incremental changes is will be eclipsed by the brand that puts in the effort to make big changes. Tesla Motors vs. Mercedes-Benz is an easy example: Tesla’s market cap quadrupled in four years; MB’s did not. Do you believe that happened because Tesla made incremental changes? Do you believe that MB will roar back to prominence by introducing a new color of leather? Or do you believe that MB’s strategy should be to not roar back at all?

    3) Racing to $0.00 margin. Customers are not masochistic. They won’t pay a premium for a brand’s product unless it provides a difference that they value. Which means that customers care about the difference. If you think they don’t, then you need to lower your prices to get them to buy, and there are any number of competing brands ready to race you to the bottom because they also believe customers don’t care about a difference. Low-margin/high-volume is not good business strategy–let alone a good brand strategy–unless you want your brand to be known for low-prices (e.g., Walmart), in which case you’ll have to differentiate anyway (e.g., Target) because Walmart probably already has your target customer (it brings in 1/3rd of the US population each week).

    To me, the only strategy that makes sense, if you care about marketing ROI, relevance, and margin, is clear: differentiation.

    Incremental change only makes sense if your competitors are not differentiating. But do you want wait to find out what happens to your market share the moment they do?

    I say, no.

  • Mark Disomma

    April 15, 2014 at 1:12 pm

    Glad it’s helpful Steve. All the best in your work.

  • Fred Nash

    April 15, 2014 at 3:00 pm

    This was a very informative article. As a graphic designer, one of the hardest things to create is the “big bang” image the client is requesting. And almost every time it comes down to a simple interesting image that effectively communicates the brand. Thanks for giving me some insight on how to explain to clients on how to be interesting in the market.

  • Mark Disomma

    April 18, 2014 at 8:29 pm

    Well argued Ted and some great case studies to make your case. You focused on incremental differentiation in my piece, but there were two clear caveats in the piece that might just address some of the issues you raised. First: Let’s kill dull. Second (and completely related): Always be interesting. Thanks Ted for such a thought-provoking response. Cheers, Mark.

  • Bob Lewis

    April 22, 2014 at 8:51 am

    A great discussion, but one issue that doesn’t seem to have come up is that today, in many categories, it’s as important to differentiate your own brand this year from what it was last year/last decade, as it is to out-difference competitors on performance or rewards.

    Kaizen, or continuous improvement without being asked or expected by the market reflects consideration and progress in the brand. The auto industry is probably the most obvious conventional category example*, but even small, thoughtful improvements to everyday fmcgs can create increased competitive value;(low-fat(!), easier to open, non-drip, eco-friendly, childproof, tamper-proof etc.)

    * Although one might point to consumer technology as the supreme example of differentiation through innovation, I would not. I think they have been operating a completely different ‘possibility’ marketing model to ‘ordinary’ products – but that’s for another discussion.

  • Mark Disomma

    April 22, 2014 at 4:52 pm

    You’re right Bob – and kaizen is a beautifully succinct way of describing “always be interesting”. The same thing trotted out year after year quickly becomes dull. Differentiating your own brand from itself is such a fascinating thought in the “upgrade” culture. It points to the very thing I was looking to convey – that ‘some bang’ is better than ‘no bang’ if ‘big bang’ is too hard. Thanks for sharing. Mark.

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