Copy KitKat on your quest for ‘double D marketing’

Tight positioning, a respected brand heritage and refusal to overcomplicate things means when it comes to uniting distinctiveness and differentiation, KitKat has it licked.

Source: Shutterstock

We often enshrine the name of a brand’s founder in gold. Later, we portray them in hagiographic movies. Or show their profile in anniversary advertising. But none of that is possible with KitKat. The eponymous chocolate wafer has an anonymous founder. It could have been invented by any one of a thousand Rowntree employees working in its York factory in the early 1930s.

Because all anyone knows is that one day a worker, presumably disappointed with the contents of their lunch box, wrote a short missive suggesting Rowntree create a snack that “a man could take to work in his pack”.

The worker dropped their idea into the company’s suggestion box and – in all probability – forgot about it by teatime, never realising their suggestion was the genesis for one of the world’s most successful snacks. And equally importantly; for the creation of a brand that now epitomises the balance between distinctiveness and differentiation for a generation of marketers struggling with this precarious equilibrium for their own brands.

The silver platter

Somebody was reading those suggestions, however. Rowntree launched its new product onto the market in 1935. It was called Rowntree’s Chocolate Crisp, but most 21st Century eyes would look on that launch product with its flat shape, four fingers and red and white livery, and recognise the pre-cursor for what would become a KitKat bar.

KitKat 1935
The Rowntree’s Chocolate Crisp 1935. Source: Nestlé

Two years later Rowntree’s marketing team realised the Chocolate Crisp name was as boring as it was generic. The company had held a trademark for the KitKat name for 20 years having been inspired by the 18th Century slang for a very English pie. In 1937 they decided to use it.

The newly named KitKat bar became a huge success. Not only in the UK, but in key global markets like the USA (where it is marketed by Hershey under license) and in Japan where the snack has become something of a cultural mainstay for millions of students who are presented with it as a gift before exams. Kitto Katsu means ‘you will surely win’ in Japanese.

KitKit 1937
Chocolate Crisp rebrands to KitKat 1937. Source: Nestlé

While the founder died unknown and unknowing, we can celebrate another marketer by name. JWT’s Donald Gilles coined the eternal slogan ‘Have a Break, Have a Kit Kat’ in 1957. The seven-syllable line was instantly catchy. More importantly, JWT took the prosaic breaktime functionality of the KitKat bar and expanded its meaning and cultural associations. KitKat was for breaks. Breaks were for KitKat. And the KitKat brand now stood for any positive abbreviation of daily tasks.

Before we finish this short history and get onto the double D point of the column, we also need to celebrate Nestlé. The Swiss company acquired Rowntree in 1988 and to its eternal credit managed to not fuck up KitKat. That’s a higher level of praise than it might sound. There is an elephant’s graveyard of brands that were acquired by bigger, seemingly smarter global players and then promptly decimated by the cruel combination of an exaggerated sense of capability and an underwhelming appreciation for the brand recently acquired. Snapple. Reebok. Jaguar. We know thee well.

In the battle between salience and differentiation, Bothism wins

But Nestlé did that most unusual thing: it spent time understanding KitKat. It dug into the brand’s roots. It used consumer data to get its strategic coordinates. And after a quarter of a century of stewardship, Nestlé earned the ultimate brand management accolade – KitKat is in better health now than at any point in its long and very impressive history.

A lot of this is down to the humility of Wael Jabi and the team of marketers he currently leads at Nestlé. Jabi has been in charge of KitKat marketing for just over two years and he is the first to point to those who preceded him both within Nestlé and before. He describes his global role as the “easiest job in the world”. Jabi claims he was handed “everything on a silver platter”. But it takes smarts and experience to see the platter for what it is, and not mess about with that platter or make it overly ornate or complicated in an attempt to improve it further.

Distinctiveness and differentiation

Things can get very dry and slightly arcane when marketers discuss the double D dilemma. But KitKat keeps it simple and shows you the way. I put it to you, dear marketer, that KitKat is a special brand because it provides a living exemplar when it comes to distinctiveness and differentiation in perfect harmony. Let me explain.

I am a marketing bothist. I hate it when some plonker tells you that one thing is replacing another or, worse, that it is killing off some other aspect of marketing. It’s almost always the case that this is never the case. The superior thing that the plonker is telling you to focus on exclusively is much improved with the addition of the thing they are dismissing as redundant.

You can apply this logic to demand generation and performance. Creative and media. Gut and market research. Targeting and mass-marketing. In-house and external. Digital and traditional. And you can absolutely apply it to distinctiveness and differentiation too.

Be like KitKat. Have a single concept for brand positioning.

In the 1980s, marketers were told that differentiation was everything and if they did not achieve it their brand would die. In the noughties the Dark Lord of Penetration – Professor Byron Sharp – perhaps unknowingly, and perhaps knowingly, ushered in a decade of stupidity by suggesting that rather than focusing on differentiation, marketers would be better off focusing exclusively on distinctiveness instead. Many binary marketing bozos did just that as a result and started wanging on about distinctiveness killing off differentiation as they did it.

My recommendation is ignore this tiresome binary approach. We must thank Ehrenberg-Bass for their outstanding contribution to the field with the discovery of distinctiveness. But I recommend that most decent marketers hold two contradictory ideas within their brand plans at the same time. Be greedy! Build a distinctive brand, but also build one that is differentiated too.

Watch Mark Ritson’s Defending Differentiation webinar here

Relative differentiation

A caveat here. When I say differentiation I mean something different from what you think I mean. At some point about 30 years ago the differentiation train was hijacked by Michael Porter, Al Ries and Jack Trout. All of them got it wrong and proposed that differentiation was only achievable through uniqueness. That’s balls. Very few brands have unique features or associations. And even when they do, they can be copied and usurped quickly. Most brands don’t even own attributes and associations in the perceptual sense.

But where brands can triumph is with relative differentiation. Not by aiming for some mythical unique quality that no other brand possesses. By offering more, or appearing to offer more, of it than any alternative. Brands can be seen as more convenient, less intrusive or friendlier, for example. I am relatively fatter than my brother-in-law. That does not mean I am uniquely fat. Or that he is not slightly fat. It means I have more fat than him and everybody knows it. Differentiation does not mean unique. If you think about it in any other context it’s immediately obvious. It’s just marketing where we got this mixed up.

KitKat 2024
KitKit in 2024. Source: Nestlé

To achieve relative differentiation you have to do more than just reject the absolutes of uniqueness. To win relatively you also need to pick your battles. You must focus all your marketing resources on only a couple of associations, attributes, category entry points or values. I truly don’t care what you call them. But what I do care about is how many you have packed into your brand strategy, because I am betting my salary against yours that you have too many.

Most marketers have too much brand positioning. They have purpose. And values. And beliefs. And essence. Circles upon circles. Keyholes within rhomboids. And a host of other shapes and concepts that they use to pad out their positioning strategy and completely negate any possibility of getting this across to target consumers. They fail because they thought brand positioning was an end in itself – a book, a presentation, a pdf document. They fail because they have forgotten that positioning was always a means to something more important. A means to the end of consumer associations.

They fail because in each of the concepts that crowd out most brand positioning there are too many fucking words jostling for attention. Their brand essence has four or five different sentences. Next to it is a set of values – usually innovation and integrity along with four or five more. There is a bland mission with a couple of sentences. A purpose about inspiring something. A brand personality with six traits. And as this word count goes up, and more and more shit is thrown against the customer wall, none of it sticks.

Cadbury is celebrating its birthday in the basement of the benefit ladder

Then there is inherent exaggerated nonsense of what these words attempt to claim. Most marketers are so high on their own semantic self-obsessed crack they cannot see that claiming to be ‘the consumer champion’ or to ‘change lives’ or ‘expand possibilities’ is hilariously nonsensical, utterly pointless and entirely unasked for by the consumer. People may indeed want to expand their possibilities, but they do not want their cereal brand involved. Most importantly, these esoteric, addled high-order claims mean these brands are shooting so ridiculously high that they will always miss the quotidian target of consumer persuasion.

Starbucks used to have a mission to ‘inspire and nurture the human spirit’. Then they got a new CEO and realised this was a crazy over-stretch. The company got together, smoked a different type of crack and changed their positioning. Now their mission is ‘to nurture the limitless possibilities of human connection’.

I think about this a lot. Perhaps too much. About the inherent madness of this statement and the lack of market orientation of those in the room who came up with it. Starbucks is a big company, but like every other brand it is a little, little part of its consumers’ lives. There is room for Starbucks to be more than an 8am coffee, but no one walked into Starbucks anywhere on the planet today looking for the brand to nurture the limitless potential of their communication. And at no point did Starbucks do any such thing for anyone.

Double D marketing

If you want relative differentiation you need to take a long cold shower. Then you need to arm yourself with only two concepts. The first is your brand palette. It’s made up of your brand codes. If you prefer you can call these distinctive brand assets. Or KBAs. Or distinctive assets. Just like the concepts associated with brand positioning, the terminology does not matter. But be clear that these are choices not additions. Just pick one name for your assets. Then select your logo plus three or four other sensual elements that make your brand look like you.

KitKat was decades ahead of most brands in this area. Its palette is simple and incredibly strong. So strong you don’t need this paragraph listing its brand codes. There is the famed doubled K logo on the white oval. Breaktime red otherwise known as Pantone 1788C. There are the long symmetrical brown bars of chocolate with the little crevasses in between. Finally, there is the epitaph of Donald Gilles and his seven syllable tagline. Not much, but again that’s the point. You want it tight. Too many codes can be as fatal as too few.

Of course, these distinctive assets don’t drive differentiation, they deliver distinctiveness. If you read too much marketing theory they are the opposite of differentiation. Its antithesis. But if you want to go to market with double Ds then you need to look beyond this fake binary imposition. You need your codes to drive distinctiveness and elicit the brand, to bring it to mind, to make it fire up inside a consumer’s consciousness. And once it’s there you have the chance to add and reinforce its associations.

Time is the oven that bakes the double D cake. Learning to not get bored. Coming into a new brand and respecting the work already in place.

I am not dogmatic about what these associations need to be either. They can be taken straight from the boring but mightily effective Ehrenberg-Bass manual of category entry points. You can focus on features. Benefits. Higher order associations. Even purpose. But my key point – again – is that you can only focus on a few, maybe just one of them if you want to establish it among consumers.

Obviously, you would like your brand to have a plethora of positive associations, but the consumer reality is they have very little interest or attention to spare for your brand. And you have a lot of competition and not much investment. So focus. Be choiceful. Double down. What does the consumer want the most? What can you relatively differentiate on versus the rivals?

Be like KitKat. Have a single concept for brand positioning. In Nestlé’s case it just has a brand belief. It’s only five words long, but it really centres on just one association. KitKat believes breaks are good for you. That’s not the slogan. It’s not the tactical plan. It’s proper brand positioning. It’s what Nestlé wants you to think when you think about the brand.

To my point, this is not a unique association. A fair share of cruise lines, island destinations and the odd beer brand have positioned in a similar manner. Even within the category there are brands like TimeOut or Cadbury’s Caramel and Flake which have all attempted to sell you chocolate by positioning rabbits and overflowing bathtubs that tell you to take a break from it all and enjoy some me time.

Clearly KitKat is not unique, but it is more associated with breaks than any other brand for most consumers in the market. It is relatively differentiated. That’s because it focuses more of its marketing on this one thing, for longer and with more creativity than all the others. And the perceptual one-two of coming to mind first thanks to its distinctiveness, and then being more linked to breaks, secures its supremacy.

KitKat is a special brand because it provides a living exemplar when it comes to distinctiveness and differentiation in perfect harmony.

The great thing about this kind of single concept, tightly worded, humbly stated positioning is that it can inspire superb long-running creative. Note all the creative work from KitKat that has always ticked both the distinctiveness and differentiation boxes. It is always codified. Always KitKat. Also note that the message across all this work plays on the idea of taking a break away from work and giving time back to you.

That is the other ingredient in all of this success. It’s not just that KitKat is more codified and distinctive. Or that it is more tightly positioned and therefore relatively differentiated in the market. It’s that the brand has been doing both without any major change, rebrand or new campaign for half a century.

Time is the oven that bakes the double D cake. Learning to not get bored. Coming into a new brand and respecting the work already in place. Not changing the agency and its existing output because you can. Rare is the brand manager like Wael Jabi who takes over a brand like KitKat and realises things don’t need to be overcomplicated and things don’t need to be changed. We need more marketers like him.

As our work lives become longer, more all-encompassing and more divorced from the real world behind the digital screen we stare at all day, the power of KitKat’s seven syllable, 50-year-old mantra grows stronger and more appealing. And if marketers need an example to illustrate how distinctiveness and relative differentiation not only co-exist but actively combine to build your brand, then KitKat is the brand that breaks it all open.

Mark Ritson is five times winner of the PPA Columnist of the Year award and the British Society of Magazine Editors Business Columnist of the Year. He teaches the KitKat case study along with 7,854 other examples on his wildly successful Mini MBA programmes kicking off this April  Mini MBA in Marketing.