Mark Ritson: Distinctiveness doesn’t need to come at the cost of differentiation

Distinctiveness and differentiation are both integral to brand success so there doesn’t need to be a trade-off between the two.

stand out

Tom Roach and his team of effectiveness monkeys have been at it again at BBH London. Every now and again they sit down and stitch together a bunch of separate slides, charts and other marketing ephemera to create a pithy but powerful statement on key topics in advertising and marketing.

Roach’s latest theme is ‘The stupidity of sameness and the value of difference’. That might strike you as a rather obvious target. After all, aren’t we all determined to differentiate? Well not anymore. In recent years the question of whether differentiation is even possible, never mind how to achieve it, is rarely far from the surface among evidence-based marketers.

The story of differentiation and its more superficial, extrovert cousin called distinctiveness is one of the most interesting and important in branding right now.

So, let’s tell the story in three very discrete chapters.

Chapter 1 – The difference is difference

From the outset of brand management we were all told to “differentiate or die”. Roach goes back as far as Edward Chamberlain’s book ‘The Theory of Monopolistic Competition’ in 1933 for the origins of differentiation.

But it was really Rosser Reeves, from the Ted Bates agency, that got the ball rolling in the early 1960s with the unique selling proposition. Reeves was certain that advertising worked best when it proposed a unique brand benefit that competitors simply could not match. The prototypical USP was M&M’s, which who used a patented sugar coating to justify the claim that its chocolate “melts in your mouth, not in your hand”.

Reeves might have been a pioneer but he was certainly not an outlier. It really did not matter which guru you followed, each pushed the idea of differentiating on a unique benefit as the basis for brand success.

Bill Bernbach made it clear that “if you stand for something, you will always find some people for you and some against you”, but that in standing for nothing “you will find nobody against you, and nobody for you”.

My biggest hero was Harvard’s Ted Levitt and he was of similar mind when it came to brand strategy. “Differentiation is one of the most important strategic and tactical activities in which companies must constantly engage,” he would regularly tell his MBA students.

By the start of the 1970s Al Ries and Jack Trout had revolutionised branding with their concept of positioning. And at the heart of this new approach was the search for a single attribute or association that a brand could own in the mind of the target consumer. It was one step down from the uniqueness sought by Rosser Reeves a decade earlier but it was still about finding a singular focus and taking control of it in the mind of the market to the exclusion of all other competitors.  Volvo positioned on safety, FedEx positioned itself around ‘overnight’. According to Ries and Trout a brand won when it owned the most important potential benefit in the mind of the prospect.

By the time most of us walked into our first marketing lecture the power of differentiation was already set well into stone. The brands that succeeded were the ones that zigged, rather than zagged. They stood for things that other brands did not. They owned associations that other brands could not claim. They differentiated themselves in the market and were triumphant as a result.

Chapter 2 – The distinctive truth

But there was a snag. Whenever marketers left the conference circuit or classroom and actually tried to do the differentiation thing it rarely worked. When they actually looked at data it rarely showed a brand as radically different from the other competitors in the market. In fact, more often than not, the perceptions were incredibly similar.

It was at this point that that the scholars at Ehrenberg-Bass made a vital and ultimately discipline-shredding intervention. Led by the dark lord of penetration himself, Professor Byron Sharp, Ehrenberg-Bass began to challenge the power of differentiation. Using data from a range of different markets these scholars showed a distinct lack of perceptual differences between brands and queried whether differentiation really was such a golden branding objective.

They went further and posited that rather than differentiated image being the driving force behind the success or failure of a brand, it was distinctiveness that was the real driver. Marketers continue to confuse these two terms but, in essence, the two concepts are simple to separate. When a brand is distinctive it looks like itself and “jumps out” at the consumer when they encounter it or consider a purchase. When a brand is differentiated it successfully convinces consumers that its offer is significantly different to those of the competition on a range of intended associations or attributes. Coke is red and round and always there when you are thirsty, Pepsi is the taste of a new generation.

I do not believe in USPs – they are usually bullshit and even when they are not, they can be quickly replicated.

While Ehrenberg-Bass acknowledged that differentiation did exist it was a weak form of the condition. In Sharp’s famed book ‘How Brands Grow’ he acknowledges differentiation must exist because brands have different names and elicit different thoughts like “is the red one” or “has my size available”. Compared to the titanic earlier ambitions of Reeves and Bernbach this all felt a bit of a let down but there was a mountain of evidence to suggest that distinctiveness did drive brand growth and differentiation rarely mattered.

And it has spawned a serious anti-differentiation dogma among those that follow the teachings of Ehrenberg-Bass. I’ve had a number of conversations with perfectly intelligent marketers who have told me, without a flinch of uncertainty, that if you survey any market about any sub-set of brands and control for size they will all be perceived exactly the same on all the main attributes. This is patent nonsense but is, trust me, an increasingly common claim among evidence-based marketers.

And it does make for a rather odd situation when it comes to brand positioning. In the red corner you have the monochrome world of those that follow Ehrenberg-Bass who focus on distinctive assets like colours, shapes and buying cues and care very little for what meanings the brand actually tries to stand for. In the blue corner are the increasingly addled marketers who smoke the crack pipe of brand purpose and who have largely ignored the category completely and believe their brand is there to save communities, inspire peace, create harmony, insert nonsense here.

READ MORE: Mark Ritson – a true brand purpose doesn’t boost profit, it sacrifices it

Chapter 3 – Cake eaters of the world unite

By now you have probably worked out where I, and Tom Roach, are heading. Before we get there, however, I want to make sure I do not sound too anti-Ehrenberg-Bass. If you look at just how addled we all were about differentiation and the need to be unique you must acknowledge the massive, heroic impact that Sharp et al have had on brand management over the past decade on this one key topic.

Traditionally we saw brand awareness as simply a gateway variable and then spent all our time worrying about brand image. By putting their empirical fingers on the scales and re-weighting the value of awareness and the power of salience Ehrenberg-Bass has changed branding theory forever. While I am convinced they have gone too far in belittling differentiation to promote the power of distinctiveness, the power of distinctiveness cannot be denied.

As a crude estimate I would suggest we used to think it was 20% awareness and 80% image, these days anyone with a brain has generally reversed those ratios. I accept that most of the battle for brand supremacy comes from creating and maintaining salience in the market, even in the most emotional and high involvement categories.
But it’s clear that brands really can have their cake and eat it too. Distinctiveness need not come at the cost of differentiation.

I’ve spent my career, at least the past 20 years, working with very big brands on brand positioning. I have pushed these brands to work on a tight brand position to articulate how they want to differentiate themselves in the market and a set of codes through which they could make their brand distinctive. I see both as integral to brand success and do not believe there need be a trade-off between the two. Indeed, in many cases, such as my work on Donna Karan, the source of the differentiated association (New York is the centre of the world) and distinctive codes (yellow cabs) were directly linked together.

But in order for this dual approach to work there needs to be a huge amount of realism when it comes to what differentiation actually means. I do not believe in USPs – they are usually bullshit and even when they are not, they can be quickly replicated. I do not think a brand can own an attribute or association either. The perceptual map never reveals a special place where only one brand can covet a particular association. But a brand can differentiate itself by being more of one thing than its competitors. And in combining the right associations with the right execution, ideally powered by the distinctiveness that comes from clear and well applied brand codes, a brand can present itself differently to the market from its competitors.

But that more realistic view of differentiation requires parsimony and focus. For a long time I have looked at these complex brand pyramids and 20-page brand books as little more than branding masturbation. They make you feel great but do nothing for anyone else except make a mess. If you really want to position a brand you must focus on a realistic and relatively short set of associations or attributes. Assume you have achieved brand salience, what do you want the consumer to think when they think about your brand? Write it down. There is your brand positioning.

In short, I think the work on distinctiveness is a revelation and an important course correction for those of us who were sold on the dreams of USPs and attribute ownership. But a smart marketer can also enjoy the benefits of a distinctive brand and a realistically differentiated one too. The challenge comes down to making choices and being clear on what you want to position a brand on and which codes you intended to make distinctively yours. As usual, if you need more than a page to articulate this combined strategy something has gone very, very wrong.



There are 9 comments at the moment, we would love to hear your opinion too.

  1. Dave Tindall 28 Mar 2019

    It’s amazing how many senior marketers on both the agency and client side of the fence just don’t get this. It possibly goes back to one of your previous articles about lack of formal training Mark…

    I remember being fresh out of university and in my first marketing role. Sitting in a meeting discussing what our well known brand stood for, the agency challenged us for USPs to which I replied we didn’t have any. My manager and our agency colleagues looked somewhat surprised and I initially feared I had spoken without thinking, the new boy making a textbook faux pas. However what followed was a couple of hours of meandering conversation until it was agreed that at best we had SSPs (Strong Selling Points). I’m not sure the SSPs were any different to the other well known brands in the category and the brand today still seems to lurch from one position to the next on the whim of the current Marketing Director with no long term strategic plan.

  2. Marcelo Ferrarini 28 Mar 2019

    Mark, where can I find data to make the case for differentiation/positioning/meaning?

  3. Dzmitry Hryshkevich 30 Mar 2019

    I think recent years witnessed a serious challenge for FMCG brand management and theories underpinning it. Nowadays in Russia, for example, over 70% of household detergents is sold on promo. Say it does get worse and reaches 100% (be sure it will), so where does brand building come in to mitigate this? Could conventional tools like advertising, brand positioning, saliency, etc really change people’s purchasing behaviour? Coming from food FMCG I do believe in unique product attributes (which are not easy to replicate) and relevant to people brand positioning (relevancy is the key thing here).
    I think in your “red corner blue corner” duality there is a space for a decent research study able to uncover true consumer knowledge: their mindset, routine and needs which would feed brand building resonating with people and touching their lives. Alas, it is easier said than done. I don’t agree on brand perception sameness as I believe it is much to do with your approach to research. I bet that a brand manager who is truly knowledgeable about his/her category and who wishes to nail actionable consumer knowledge could get it right.

  4. Mathieu Manson 31 Mar 2019

    I like your approach Mark and it makes sense. Same question as Marcelo: do you have any data to support that meaningful differentiation leads to success?
    I agree with your statement that ‘a brand can present itself differently to the market from its competitors.’ but that sounds like distinctiveness to me. I guess it all depends on the definition.
    I think a brand needs a positioning (which can be category generic) and express it in a recognisable (dare I say unique) way — to be distinctive.
    In the end differentiation in its true sense is replicable so not sustainable as an advantage. To me ‘from New-York’ isn’t really differentiation in its true sense but part of (distinctive) brand assets.
    Differentiation in its true sense is e.g. ‘the only running shoes with an air cushion in the sole’. Everyone caught up with that, so what’s more enduring is the salience and distinctive assets (just do it). It may be that being associated with first to market on technological innovations builds positive brand images in consumers’ minds in certain categories — but I would argue probably not most.

  5. David Vawter 31 Mar 2019

    You can lay it at the feet of brand managers who for the past 20+ years have been obsessed with demonstrating to their imagined target audience — usually younger, hipper and wealthier than the people who actually buy the product — how they “get them,” rather than constructing a coherent, compelling narrative about what makes the brand or product special. The current mania over “brand purpose” can be seen as a subset of this desperation to be liked at the expense of providing a reason why a brand is in the market and what makes it different.

  6. Jacky York 1 Apr 2019

    Interesting stuff here. I’ve been saying for years to that for most smaller businesses striving to find a USP is a fruitless mission. And often even if you do have a USP (albeit for a short time) consumers and buying behaviour is so fickle it’s not always going to lead to success. Indeed, being too’ different’ can be detrimental as consumers struggle to find and rate the value that is in that ‘uniqueness’. Not to mention that often humans are mistrustful of those who make claims about being unique/the best etc because their experience always suggests that these claims fall short of expectations. The concept of positioning – an idea/variable occupying a ‘unique space’ was taken from physical science in an attempt to use scientific models to help our understanding of human behaviour. Such models should be seen as an aid to understanding, and not the absolute truth to be applied in all situations.

  7. Adele Jolliffe 1 Apr 2019

    Agreed that true differentiation is virtually impossible to achieve. However, brands can still be perceived as different by consistently standing for one thing. Our data (at Kantar) shows that many brands achieve this, and it helps them to command more of a premium. But whatever the difference is, it must be meaningful. Marketers need to ask the question: why should a consumer bother to buy the brand? What is it about Donna Karan’s New York roots, for example, that is meaningful? Some consumers will associate New York as an aspirational fashion destination, and this is probably enough for a premium brand like DKNY. But more mainstream brands need to think about why their differentiated distinctiveness should matter to people. It’s also the case that difference alone isn’t enough to grow a brand. In addition to being perceived as different and meaningful, our data tells us the highest performing brands come to mind quickly and easily in connection with category needs. USPs are hard to come by and can be copied, but distinctive assets and associations are a strong foundation for this salience, helping to build shortcuts with category needs and occasions.

  8. Marcelo Salup 1 Apr 2019

    I almost totally agree with your take on the 20 (never mind 200!) page “Branding” books, except, I really don’t make a mess when I masturbate. Otherwise, you are right on point: a few short, relevant sentences.

    Also, I would add, don’t be afraid to show humanity. For CEO Analytics, my company, our slogan is that we “unearth what your customers really love… and are eager to pay for” and our website is strong (without being cheesy) on love. We found that potential customers looked at that and said “wow, they must be very sure of themselves to be that emotional” so it really sets us apart.

  9. Simon Kelly 4 Apr 2019

    Mark completely agree with the “Sea of Sameness’ view. We’ve actually done research in 3 industry sectors: Telecommunications, Datacentres, and UK Universities (for which we are finalising the analysis). The first two were from a B2B perspective where the pain felt from this sameness should be real, as 58% of B2B deals end in no deal (Qvidian research) because the sameness doesn’t make a compelling case to change from the status quo. Here’s a link to the white paper, I’m going to email a copy to you. The UK Universities work should be interesting!

Leave a comment


Discover even more as a subscriber

This article is available for subscribers only.

Sign up now for your access-all-areas pass.

Subscribers get unlimited access to unrivalled coverage of the biggest issues in marketing and world-renowned columnists, alongside carefully curated reports and briefings from Econsultancy. Find out more.

If you are an existing print subscriber find out how you can get access here.

Subscribe now

Got a question?

Contact us on +44 (0)20 7292 3703 or email

If you are looking for our Jobs site, please click here

Subscribers get unlimited access to unrivalled coverage of the biggest issues in marketing and world-renowned columnists, alongside carefully curated reports and briefings from Econsultancy. Find out more.

If you are an existing print subscriber find out how you can get access here.

Subscribe now