Is Brand Differentiation A Strategy Worth Pursuing?

Brand Differentiation

While publishing various articles on the topic of brand differentiation and positioning I became involved in some very interesting and intensive debates on the merits and even the relevance of this concept with the modern consumers.

The discussions can be summarized into a single question: is brand differentiation still a valid strategy worth pursuing, or just an old school concept that lost its relevance?

Those who think brand differentiation is not worth the effort argue that the modern consumers perceived most products as commodities that offer little or no differentiation. Moreover, with the all the products within a category being offered at a “decent” quality level, any option would satisfy most of one’s needs.

What was even more surprising was some of the questions and comments were posted by fellow marketers, and not just occasional readers of my articles.

My short answer to the question above is that positioning the brand for meaningful differentiation is a must. Moreover, with brands today facing fierce competition, this strategy should be the first step in the branding process.

We all have our brand preferences in categories we care about. When it comes to toothpicks, any brand will do for me, so I buy whatever is available. When it comes to my hobbies, such as my road bike or my camera, I spend a lot of time researching, deciding, and justifying.

The higher the financial and emotional investment, the stronger the consumer involvement in the buying process, the more important brand differentiation becomes.

We often buy emotionally and justify rationally.

The benefits of having a differentiated brand spread beyond the relationship with consumers.

Differentiation is also an important motivational factor for your sales force. A unique or strongly differentiated product is easier to sell, as it generates more interest and opens more doors.

Your independent distribution will also appreciate a differentiated product. Distributors are looking for ways to stay relevant to their customer base, and avoid price wars with their competitor across the street.

If consumers didn’t care about what products they choose, their only shopping criteria would be price and availability. And yet some are willing to drive long distances to buy their favorite brand.

And finally differentiation generates loyalty, which is the key ingredient of a strong brand.

Comments

  1. Very valid points Ken. Thanks for sharing.

  2. My question is… Can you honestly call what you have a “Brand” if ‘Differentiation’ isn’t at least a component of your Strategy? Pretty much every Company and/or Product has a Name and most have at least a minimal Logo and Look & Feel associated with them; but that doesn’t make them a “Brand”. Creating/maintaining a “Brand” requires an awareness of one’s unique Mission (reason for being) and Position [relative to competitors within the category] and then conscious action to speak to Consumers about Relevant Messaging in a Voice that encapsulates your Value Proposition [Rational and/or Emotional] while simultaneously expressing the unique Identity you seek to establish/maintain. I think I agree with your point that postmodern consumers are increasingly cynical about the intangible narratives and mythologies that advertising historically associates with ‘Brand identity’ above and beyond the actual realities of the branded product itself. I can see how this might make one question if the [traditional] concept of a Brand in and of itself is still relevant and it certainly might be a call to action to reevaluate how we express Brand identity outside of direct product attributes. However, even in commoditized categories, competitive marketplaces provide consumers with a choice between multiple options (and individual consumers often purchase with consistent preferences from among those options). At its most basic, the purpose of a Brand is to put a name/identity to an option within the category. Whether we’ve lost sight of it or not, every other undertaking in service of that brand is necessarily intended to influence the consumer’s choice of our brand over an alternative option. How we influence that choice may need to change to reflect an evolving consumer sophistication but ultimately a choice between ‘equals’ requires a tipping point of perceived/understood/imagined difference that drives the selection of one option over the other. Regardless of the actions of the Brand holder, the ‘true Brand identity’ exists in the mind of the consumer and is predicated on personal associations of what makes that product/company/brand different from its competitors. If one seeks to create/maintain a “Brand” then everything they do to support that Brand needs to establish its unique identity in the marketplace and ideally influence consumers to choose it over its competitors. Unless the consumer is simply pulling an item off the shelf at random; that choice requires the consumer to see it as “different” whether they consciously realize it or not.

  3. Very interesting information Jeffrey, thanks for sharing.

  4. Michael, At a recent conference I organized for wine marketing professionals, we discussed this topic along with the broader issue of understanding what consumers say versus what they do. A consumer may say that they don’t have a preference of a brand but their behavior can be very different from what they say. You and your readers might find my summary of the event relevant. http://momentslater.blogspot.com/2013/05/what-consumers-say-versus-what-they-do.html

    Also, the best book I have read on differentiation is called DIFFERENT by Youngme Moon who teaches at Harvard. You can read a review of it here. http://momentslater.blogspot.com/2011/12/different-marketing-book-review.html

    Cheers.

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