The Case for Distinctiveness and Differentiation


Back in 2007, Byron Sharp and his colleagues at the Ehrenberg Bass Institute published a paper that challenged the received wisdom that had underpinned the discipline of brand management for decades. The received wisdom being that differentiation was everything and to be successful a brand needed to clearly differentiate itself from its competitors on one or two key attributes.

Instead, based on empirical evidence, they argued that brands in any given category were rarely perceived as being truly different from one another and that distinctiveness was really the key driver of brand growth. By distinctiveness they meant the unique visual associations by which a brand is recognised. 

This theory was further expounded in Sharp’s ground breaking 2010 book, ‘How Brands Grow’. Needless to say, it proved to be highly controversial and the issue of distinctiveness v differentiation has been the subject of furious debate ever since.

Without going into details of the debate, these have been well documented elsewhere, what appears to be emerging is a consensus that yes, the importance of differentiation had perhaps been overstated in driving brand strategy, but that an out and out focus on distinctiveness was not the way forward either. There is a sensible middle way where the benefits of both can be put to work to drive brand image, saliency and growth.

Indeed, at Echo we have always believed that clear, realistic differentiation as well as distinctive assets are equally important in creating potent brand identities and that, in addition, they are inextricably linked.

Creating and owning unique, distinctive visual equity is essential for a brand. At its simplest level it identifies the brand to the consumer, creates stand out and recognition; but over time it also builds memory structure eventually becoming the visual shorthand for what the brand stands for.  

However, for a brand to be distinctive in the way it looks, feels and behaves you need to know what makes it different as this is what will drive the creation of unique assets. Distinctiveness for its own sake is simply not going to cut it in today’s competitive environment in which consumer expectations of brand ‘authenticity’ have never been higher.

That’s why at Echo we talk about ‘taut’ brands, where brand and product unite together as one to create brand identity that has the power to establish long term consumer connection and deliver the optimum user experience.

For us product differentiation can either be something intrinsic, which can be experienced, or something more intangible – provenance, attitude, a point of view. Our role is to define the product relationship with the user and the brand, its values, the associated behaviours and personality – the essential platform for creating distinctive assets. 

Whilst true differentiation will drive unique assets, we can also use distinctive assets to help amplify more generic positioning to make the brand feel more differentiated; and these assets are not just visual. They can manifest themselves in the click of a door, the snap of a closure, the feel in the hand i.e. they can be built into the functional experience too. Our work on the Rexona/Sure deodorant aerosol helped accentuate the ‘performance’ positioning through its unique shape allowing the product to ‘behave’ in a brand like way. As a result, both distinctiveness and differentiation are then re-enforced over time through actual use.

Distinctive assets can be dialled-up and down along the consumer journey at different touch points, drawing consumers in by tapping into instinctive System 1 decision-making and re-enforcing memory structure. Differentiation works over time to help consumers consciously rationalise their choices. 

So, distinctiveness and differentiation should walk hand-in-hand; together they create brand meaning and will be the drivers of a new generation of successful brands.


Alastair Jones