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Meaningful differentiation is far more than just functional benefits

by Nigel Hollis | November 02, 2011

In her post, “Brand Strategy: Rethinking Brand Differentiation,” Carol Philips seeks to contrast her views on differentiation with those of Millward Brown.

But reading her post, I am not sure there is any significant difference between the two. It seems to me that Carol makes the assumption that we see difference as a matter of functional benefits, but that is simply not true.

Carol selects a couple of quotes from Helen Fearn’s Point of View, “Growing a Strong Brand: Defining Your Meaningful Point of Difference.” But a meaningful point of difference often has little to do with the ‘points of difference’ and ‘reasons to believe’ Carol assumes.

Look up the word “meaning.” Synonyms are sense, gist, connotation, import and significance. In the context of a brand, meaning has nothing to do with features and functional benefits, and everything to do with people’s understanding of what the brand stands for, the sense that the brand has something unique to offer.

As Carol notes in her post, most brands are pretty poor at creating meaningful differentiation, but they are excellent at creating irrelevant features and mindless imitation. Instead, she suggests brands should aim to make themselves “relevant.” I would not disagree, but “relevant” is such a functional word. To me, a much more appropriate word is “resonant.”

Take the example of the brands that Carol identifies as having cultural relevance: Starbucks, Nike, Patagonia, Vitamin Water and Innocent (UK). Success for these brands is not just a matter of jumping on the latest cultural bandwagon, as Carol suggests in her takeaway. These brands shape and inform the cultural debate. They are built from a sense of purpose that permeates the entire brand experience. These brands resonate with their target audience because they are meaningfully different.

I think what is missing from Carol’s post is a sense of hierarchy. Brands build resonance – relevance if you wish – through a hierarchy of meaning that roughly parallels Maslow’s hierarchy of needs: functional, emotional and cultural. Unless a brand can fulfill the lower levels of meaning, it will fail to achieve the higher levels. You can argue whether or not Patagonia’s gear is really different from North Face or Arcteryx, but the cultural values of the company definitely are. But would Patagonia be successful if it failed to deliver great quality products? No. The company’s ethos would still strike a chord with people, but most would not buy the products.

So meaningful difference is not necessarily about product differences. But it does rely on having the functional bases covered (to use a baseball metaphor). But unless you up your game to the next level, then you risk commoditization along with so many other brands.


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  1. ducson, November 30, 2011
    Meaningful points of difference involves both functional and emotional connections.

    It seems that today many brands' PODs are quite hollow. That is a real challenge to figure out convincing reasons to believe for a real POD.
  2. Nigel, November 03, 2011
    Hi Satyabroto, I can see little reason why any brand would not seek both relevance and resonance. Our Link pretest data consistently shows that ads that seek to evoke both a rational and emotional message tend to perform better than those designed to convey only one message type. This applies to both new and established brands.
  3. Satyabroto, November 03, 2011
    Relevance may be a more realistic aim for a new brand, especially if a relatively small enterprise wants to pitch a tent in a rather crowded field. Resonance suits mature and entrenched brands owned by organizations with deep pockets. Many low cost airline brands resonate, but most of them do not yield competitive rates of net returns. The same anchor weighs down Internet Service Providers other than google. I suggest that a common goal post could be to integrate with a segment of consumers for who a gap in needs can be met sustainably and profitably.

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