Ditch brand differentiation and try this instead

Updated: May 31

Take the pressure off your brand — ditch the need to be different and try this instead.



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Each week I do our grocery shopping and on our list is a particular salad dressing I have on my salad for lunch just about every workday. There is no dressing like it on the market — I’ve looked.


Though there used to be one made by another brand. If that brand still sold that product I’d probably pick theirs over the one I buy now purely because the packaging is far prettier and it’s a more known brand. But those f**kers stopped making their version of it and now I’m left with the only choice and an average looking bottle — first world problems, right?


However, if both existed and the preferred brand was out of stock, I’d still buy the alternative brand (the one I buy today).


Three things are going on here.


The first is the concept of differentiation — the salad dressing has no equal in offering or availability to satiate my need for the flavour I want in my salad. Gimme gimme gimme.


The second is distinctiveness — when there was another brand offering the same type of dressing, I picked that one because the packaging was distinct, it was a brand name I was familiar with and it’s a known brand in Australia, and I’ve used their products for years since I was a kid — yep, I’m a sucker for branding in a sense I pick the ones I know and how they look.


The third part of it is the lack of brand loyalty. I’m still willing to pick the alternative option and begrudgingly even buy an entirely different flavoured dressing if neither options are available because I need some gawd-damn flavour in my leafy greens.


Brand loyalty aside as that’s a whole other kettle of fish, I wanna focus on the first two concepts; differentiation and distinctiveness. Especially why we don’t necessarily need to feel the pressure of creating a brand and an offering that is entirely different from the rest that may as well have been made on Jupiter.


Having worked with small-medium sized businesses in many different industries for the past few years, many business owners want to be unbelievably different or believe they are-unfortunately they’re not but that’s ok. This is why I want to pose something for you to consider that might challenge your thinking if you believe you need to be different to succeed.


Focusing on being distinctive is a more appropriate approach for the effort we put into developing and growing a brand. It will help you achieve brand success and it has the potential to help you grow more than if you had been hell-bent focused on being a differentiating brand — especially if it’s just to say you’re the ONLY ones…to which I say, “only schmonly”. It doesn’t need to be that way to succeed. Because personally, I think, have experienced and have been shown that being a distinctive brand is far more achievable than being a differentiated brand AND staying that way forever.

Before we kick in, let me give you my take on the two concepts:


A distinctive brand distinguishes itself in the market amongst the competition for greater identification and recall by utilising a brand identity and distinctive brand assets.


Example — Coke, Pepsi and RC. All offer cola soft-drink beverages. The taste may be slightly different to some but indistinguishable to others but the consumer's need/want is for a cola flavoured beverage. If Pepsi Max is the desired brand like it is for my father-in-law but it’s not available, a Coke Zero or even a Coca-Cola will suffice as the substitute for him. Would it be the same for you instead of going without? So the reason we identify and pick one over the other is from its brand identity and distinctive assets — eg. colour, logo, story, tone of voice, customer service, packaging and even the brand name.


Pro’s:

  • You can stand out in a crowded market of similar competitive offerings and even set apart multiple offerings of your own.

Con’s:

  • Can be harder or have less opportunity to be the go-to choice/market leader in an already established market.

  • Consumers are happy to pick an alternative if you’re not available.

  • A competitor can use similar distinctive assets or price you out of the market

A differentiated brand has no equal competition based on one or more of the following: offering, location, availability and meeting a specific need/want. Which likely defines a new category, trend or consumer need. Debatably, it could even come down to the size of the business.


Examples:

Dollar Shave Club. A subscription-based razor offering that broke the category and buyer behaviour where the competitors only sold in retailers.

The only car mechanic in town for 300 miles. They are your only option and the only option in the location which is available. It’s truly differentiated in its market situation but also not unique if you picked it up and plonked it in a town with 5 others.


Pro’s:

  • You’re the only option and go-to choice

Con’s:

  • Typically doesn’t last as competitors come along and what are you left with?

  • Maybe too much of a niche offering for growth.

Mid-point:

  • You can be bought out which could be a pro or a con depending on which way you look at it.

The most simple way I could separate the two is that differentiation is not being an orange when the rest are green apples — you might think so but they’re still both fruit. If you’re broccoli and the rest are green apples, then you’re differentiated even though you’re using the same distinct colour — one is a vegetable and the rest are fruit.


It might not be the perfect analogy as I’m sure you could poke holes in it but analogies aside, let’s press on.

 

INITIAL QUESTIONS TO ASK YOURSELF


Now there are several questions to ask of your own brand (or your client’s brand) as part of this guide and it starts with this first one:


Why do we need to be different to be successful?


Personally, my answer is NO to this first question, especially when you can say that success is subjective. As I mentioned in my example above for distinctiveness, Coca-Cola & Pespi are both cola drinks, presented distinctively, not differentiated. They co-exist and compete for connection with their consumers. Both are successful market leaders, with Coca-Cola being the more dominant of the two based on the reach of their marketing and budget as a result of that success.


Second question:


Do we need to do or offer things that are vastly or entirely different where no alternative can be compared and chosen? And/or do we need to be identified as such by a consumer where we are the only considered brand?


My answer to that question is NO to the first part and YES to the second part. Though it’s a tricky one to consider (not just because it was in 2 parts) because I think most of us are told in business that we need to be the only choice our consumers think of when it comes to what we offer, regardless if there is stiff or minimal competition. This is correct to an extent but I don’t believe being the only choice our consumers think of is mutually exclusive to being inherently, meaningfully or perceptually different as a brand.


 

WHERE DISTINCTIVENESS CAN PLAY OUT IN THE REAL WORLD

Utilising a distinctive approach to your branding can play out in a few ways to help your brand grow:


1. Distinct to create a captivating moment of connection (first time seeing/hearing about your brand) out of context and not in a buying situation (eg. ad, social media, word of mouth).


2. Distinct to stand out over the competition when the consumer has a need even if the consumer knows about the brand or not but knows where to likely find the offering (eg. 2 car dealerships next to each other on a road of dealerships, 2+ options on the shelf in a supermarket aisle of sauces).


3. Distinct to spot the brand when searching for it in context (eg. google search, social media search, shopping mall, shop aisles/shelf).


4. Distinct to find/see again intentionally or unintentionally (eg. in a new location like a McDonald’s in a different country).


 

THE LOUDEST PERSON IN THE ROOM


I’ve always thought to myself that the person with the loudest voice in the room is the one that is more likely to be heard, seen and remembered. Whether or not what they say is game-changing or total horse shit is irrelevant, as it’s comparable to how you stand out in a business/brand context. The best example of this is an annoying jingle Australian supermarket chain, Coles used in a long-running advertising campaign with the slogan “Down down, prices are down” to the tune of English rock band, Status Quo’s “Down Down” using reworked chorus lyrics. F**king annoying when it played every ad break, but boy did you remember it and associate it with Coles without hearing or seeing the brand name and logo.


The way I see this playing out is that if you show up the most with a voice that reaches the most people and look identifiable enough to stand out from others, even if they’re saying/offering the exact same things. Then you’re more likely to be recognised, identified and remembered that in turn drives business if it’s all positive recognition and consumers need what you have to offer. It’s why marketing, advertising and media exist to reward those with the loudest, most prolific voices and those who are willing to pay for it with time, and energy, not just money.


Additionally, the consumer may not need you now when they’re exposed to your brand, but it can work towards you being the first thought of brand when the time comes and they do need you.


So regardless of whether or not you need to be different, realistically, I truly believe all brands should be practising distinctiveness in their brand. Both in their brand assets and identity (eg. logo, colours, packaging, tone of voice, signage, etc). Whereas differentiation is like writing a 100% unique song or genre of music when there are only 12 notes to work with. It’s not impossible but it’s tough and in such a crowded and ever-growing global market, it’s less realistic to think we have a unique idea, let alone need to have a unique offering to be a successful brand.


 

“BRANDING LASTS, DIFFERENTIATION DOESN’T”


This quote is taken from Byron Sharp in his book “How Brands Grow” who talks about differentiation versus distinctiveness — do give it a read if you’re in marketing and branding. While I’m not going to rehash his findings like a reciting bird, this quote plays out in a few examples I can quickly recall of brands we all likely know.


Both Uber and Airbnb were category breakers offering a proper differentiated blue-ocean service and brand experience to connect with. Meaning nothing else on the market was quite like it. Sure there were taxis and boutique bed & breakfasts, but they weren’t meeting the need or scale of what these services were offering. But both now have competition which didn’t take long — as with anything new that kicks off and becomes successful, it becomes a gold rush.


However, both brands stills exist even though there are other options on the market. So what makes their brand last? Branding and marketing. Their consumers connect with them because they continually offer captivating moments to continually connect with existing customers and attract new ones with those same efforts.


On the murky flip side, being different isn’t without its perils either when there are bigger brands lurking. Amazon is known to kill off its own sellers by undercutting their prices by offering its own version of a product it sees third-party sellers generating successful sales on its platform. The same goes for Instagram/Facebook/Meta effectively burying Snapchat when it released Instagram Stories. Effectively remaking the same base features Snapchat had seen great success from with its short-form, limited time published video content features that no other social platform was doing at the time.


In both cases the brand people use most, see most, hear most and connect with most, wins. Which has nothing to do with the size of the brand, but it’s more likely to be the bigger brand that wins due to having more market opportunities to connect with consumers at a greater scale based on budget spending, reach and time in the market.


 

NICHE DOWN BUT WILL YOU GROW?


In a time where the market is perpetually growing in a global manner, if a brand is agreeably different, these days it likely serves a niche need or particular consumer. This may mean that it doesn’t appeal to broader market needs. Why is this a negative? Well firstly, it’s not to say that it can’t be a positive as a niche offering can of course be successful. A higher price can be commanded and reputation in many instances can precede the offering of a brand. It’s something I see a lot of in B2B or service-based brands like my fellow branding/marketing and creative people.


On the other hand, having a different but niche brand has a lesser chance of becoming a wider market need which equates to lesser potential growth. Especially if it’s B2C and the unit price of the offering is relatively low in its respective category (eg. $1-$30,000 — which is anything from a bottle of water to a Subaru Forester). If it’s a luxury brand it’s likely to target a smaller market of wealthy consumers and requires a higher unit price to balance out profitable revenue. But if you have a small intended market and a low price offering, it becomes harder to grow as result, especially if there are low repeat business opportunities.


I always think about this in the context of my own business, especially when I tried niching to help brand podcasters. If what my brand has to offer only meets the needs of a small number of people based on their needs, budget and/or the geographic location. In addition to my availability which is limited when I can only do so much, how do I grow as a brand? Or for my wife who runs a consumer business of handmade earrings where the price point of a pair of earrings at $30 is a significantly lower per-unit cost compared to my typical branding services of $10,000. Her earrings are catered to a specific market who appreciate and wear custom handmade jewellery and she is a team of one.


It’s hard to grow based on those offerings alone and it’s not to say that we are necessarily differentiating ourselves because there is a multitude of competitors out there and we both know that standing out as loud as we can with a distinctive brand helps us to become known for what and how we do what we do is our best shot of success.


So for me, niching to be the go-to choice that is totally different from the rest can be a lesser viable decision. On the other hand, being a distinctive brand is. Especially when I know how to brand a business with distinctive assets and create an identity that connects — it’s not tooting my own horn, it’s simply being pragmatic.


 

WHEN YOU’RE IN DIRE NEED OF HYDRATION DO YOU CARE WHICH BRAND YOU BUY?


Look at any highly competitive category where multiple brands thrive with an ever-increasing market of competitors popping up every day. Be it cars, clothing, cosmetics, books, beer or one of my favourite examples that makes differentiation non-existent and marketers absolute grave robbers… water.


A tall cylindrical glass bottle of water like VOSS water is not differentiating itself from Fiji water with its rectangle plastic bottle, or Pump water and its plastic bottle that has a pop-top cap. Those packaging features, while different to each other, are not differentiating. Why?


What distinguishes each water brand is the distinctive assets that help me identify and make a decision to buy their bottle in addition to the price, placement and promotion — rather than where the product itself is from in terms of where the water is sourced, would you agree? A distinctive asset can be the shape of the bottle, the logo, the colour of the graphics and even the copy written on the bottle that is most likely written in the voice of each brand’s identity.


Why I don’t believe this is differentiation is that there is less likely to be a meaningful difference to the consumer between each brand’s offering when the desired option is not available. Fiji water is sourced from Fiji, but does that make the water nicer than it is if it’s sourced from Australia and how would you know? Probably because you’re being told that it’s better, right? Welcome to marketing and consumer bias.


But let me pose this scenario to you. If VOSS water is either the only brand you know of the three brands, or if it’s the preferred brand you want and it wasn’t available, do you not buy the Pump or Fiji water one or both were on the shelf as an alternative? Meaning, are Pump and Fiji water different enough for you to not want to buy a similar alternative OR even a somewhat similar product, like carbonated water? That's another question for you to ask yourself and notice in your consumer’s buying habits.


For me in this water example, it still comes back to the packaging being a distinctive brand asset used to identify the brand, rather than differentiate it — whereas branding is to identify and create a captivating moment of connection with a consumer. Rather than your brand saying to a consumer “OOOH! OOOH! I’m different, there’s no one like me and you have to choose me as I’m the only one” that doesn’t make me want to buy, it’s just that I have no other option and most likely have to choose the brand or go without.


This is where consumer perception of perceived differentiation comes in — thinking they’re different just because they look different or I’m told that they’re different. The best example though is being indirectly told they’re different just by the price to make me think one is better than the other and must be different. Gotta love marketing!


That said, if there are a plethora of alternatives where I have the option of a comparable and available offering, brand preference or loyalty may as well be non-existent when I’m dying of thirst and just need friggin’ water because I’m dehydrated. In most scenarios, I’m not going to go to the next shop because the first shop didn’t have the brand of water I typically buy. I’ll buy the first thing that looks like water.


However, I also don’t want to poo-poo potential differences that make an impact on buying decisions. That makes for shitty water (pun intended) if I wasn’t to acknowledge this as there can be meaningful differences to a consumer.


For instance, a glass VOSS bottle may be the only choice a consumer wants to make because the consumer consciously avoids buying plastic packaging products and VOSS in most cases is the only water brand that uses a glass bottle.


Or if the product is made in Australia and the consumer only buys Australian owned and made products, that can be a deciding factor.


Or even if the store the water is sold at was a BP service station, the negative impact BP has had on the environment can be a negatively differentiating reason that sets BP apart due to their faults and makes a consumer not want to shop there. Obviously, this isn’t an intentional step for the BP brand but if you were to define differentiation based on a consumer’s perception of difference, then there is this side to it.


Interestingly, to get out of a literal mess from oil spills in 2006 and 2010, BP turned to their branding and renewed brand promises to help navigate their way out of that negative customer perception and get back to where they had built up decades of strong consumer connection.


 

WHAT ABOUT POSITIONING?


Yes, positioning is key when it comes to branding and brand growth. It’s a big part of any brand strategy and marketing plan. However, it doesn’t require you to be different for the sake of being positioned in the mind of your consumer.


Positioning is not as much about being different as it is placing you in the mind of a consumer. Positioning your brand in relation to your competitors is to identify the need and make a decision on where you can slot into the spot the most viable target market needs. It might influence the offering you deliver but it most likely influences the distinctive assets and marketing strategy you deploy. If one competitor is blue and the other is pink, pick a different colour. If one is more expensive and one is cheaper, be the middle ground if viable. If none are open late and your consumers need an option that is open a little later, be there for them if you can.


However, I like to treat the positioning of a brand as being thought of first when what you offer is needed. Because I don’t believe your consumers are thinking about the differences any more than they are thinking about what stands out for them to meet their needs. I don’t know about you, but I don’t compare a new iPhone and a Google Pixel and think one is not a phone and one is. They both are capable of similar things for day-to-day use, but one fits into the ecosystem that Apple has made notoriously hard to get away from when it meets my needs and has built a brand in my mind that I turn to first.


The easy solution if you take the distinctive brand approach is to give consumers 1–3 simple things to remember you for that will make them think of you more than the competition when they need what you offer. It could be colour, the shape or style of your packaging, the customer service they experience, the results of the actual offering they received, or even the brand name as 77% of B2C consumers make purchases based on a brand name alone.

For more on positioning, another one of my articles covers this more — read it here.


 

WHAT DOES THIS MEAN FOR SMALL-MEDIUM BUSINESSES?


Chances are if you’re reading this you’re part of a small-medium business and you want to grow the brand you run or are part of. Most marketing books I’ve come across or content I’ve consumed has said that you gotta be different to succeed.


Between the 1960s and 1980s, my wife’s grandfather was a dentist in the rural town they lived in — the town me and my wife have actually just moved to where her family still reside. Jack Mitchell OAM was the go-to dentist because he was the only dentist in town. He was instantly differentiated due to his geographic location which met the needs of the whole town. It’s a rarity for a business to have this geographic advantage of being the only one, especially if you’re in a metropolitan area. So the chances of you having that opportunity is less likely but it means that you can rely on your brand to position it as a distinct offering your consumers can turn to.


“If a brand fails to develop or maintain differentiation, consumers have no basis for choosing it over others. The product’s price will then be the determining factor in a decision to purchase” is a quote by marketing author David Aaker in an article that is admittedly nearly 20 years old and he may have changed his tune since. Either way, this is the kind of statement that I had been attuned to practising branding in such a light.


Additionally, when I hear marketing and brand people say things like “you shouldn’t use Integrity or Innovation or Professionalism as your brand values or include those words in your brand purpose, they should be a given”. Sure they are cliché but it’s such a blanket statement that lacks nuance in being distinctive or hell, even different.


If all your competitors lack integrity and they’re all salesy scumbags, own integrity as the cornerstone of your brand if that is the foundation you wish to build your brand on and make that a distinct part of your message and identity. You’re not being different because they could easily say they have integrity but the proof will be in the pudding of what you offer and your customers will remember you for that.


What’s important in the example of defining your values or purpose is to align them with how you and your team operate that will be useful day-to-day. Rather than coming up with something flashy and unique just to be or sound different when it’s entirely useless.

What changed for me was that if you wanna be different you gotta look/sound different, be personality-driven different AND have an offering that is so different there is nothing like it or has never been anything like it that comes close or comparable. So if all of the above applies, great, you’re differentiated. Otherwise, just like my wife’s grandfather, Jack, if you’re the only one geographically available then you’ve got that going for you too as you’re the only option a consumer has.


For most of us, only achieving what we look/sound like is easy at the small-medium business level. It is a distinct asset(s) rather than a differentiating quality that sets you apart by being identifiable, attractive and memorable right out of the gate. This is why I don’t understand businesses that avoid engaging in branding business to have something in order when starting to capture the attention of their first consumers.


Even if all your competitors offer and say the same kinds of things you would to attract a consumer, you can say it LOUDER and more often, and more often, and more often, with conviction. While saying it in a tone of voice that is authentic to you and what you know your consumers will respond to most, to connect with them while looking different and reasonably attractive. If you do that, you’ll be doing good. You’ll be off to a good start. Especially if you show up time and time again, as many times as I see my kids watching Bluey on TV if you can, because consistent brand presentation across all platforms has been found to increase revenue by up to 23%.

 

NO NEED TO REINVENT THE WHEEL


Most importantly, however, this need to reinvent the wheel for the sake of being different is a massive distraction when more than one brand that offers the same thing can still see shared success. The perfect example of this and I’m sure you’ve seen a scenario like this too, is when I see 5 coffee shops in the space of 100m of one another on one street. I saw it in a suburb of Sydney I used to live in and the town I have recently moved to. All of whom have their fair share of customers day in, day out.


This makes me think that putting on the pressure of needing to be the ONLY one doing it as you do might detract from more meaningful and important things that can make an impact on your business and consumers. Like meeting the needs your consumers have and becoming a go-to choice based on your reputation for meeting those needs. Or simply being as easily accessible and always available when likely needed can be a game-changer for you and your consumers alike.


In other words, instead of just being the only ones once every blue moon. Offering a great customer experience, having sexy looking packaging people want to get their hands on, having personalised consumer communication, having colours your competitors aren’t using, having a simple and easily recognisable logo and having a captivating voice that connects with your consumers. All of this will make for a distinctive brand that your brand will be remembered for, bought from and thought about for those reasons.


Because you can still become the go-to choice for any of those many reasons. It just depends on how committed you are to growing your brand using by being a distinctive brand rather than needing to be a differentiated brand.


If you want to better connect with your consumers and captivate their attention over others in the market, book call with me here.