Why brands need to be seen as different and distinctive

by Nigel Hollis | May 25, 2015

Several years ago now I wrote a Point of View titled “It Is Not a Choice: Brands Should Seek Differentiation and Distinctiveness.” I still cannot imagine why a marketer would choose one quality over another because they are both important, unless, of course, it is simply easier to change your logo than it is to create meaningful differentiation.

As I noted in a recent M&M Global post, perceived differentiation is driven more by whether people view the brand as unique, like Burberry, or setting the trends for its category, like Apple. Difference can be driven by an innovative product, positioning or even tone of voice. Distinctiveness is driven by sensory and semantic cues that make the brand easy to recognize, for example colors, packaging, logo, design or taglines.


The evidence we have based on consumer perceptions of nearly 5,000 brands measured in last year’s BrandZ survey (look out for the launch of BrandZ Top 100 Most Valuable Brands on Wednesday) , suggests that the two qualities are highly related – even when we remove the influence of brand size (r=0.78). I conclude that,

“Marketers need to strive to make their brands both different and distinctive: different in order to justify a price premium over close alternatives, distinctive in order to trigger pre-existing, positive feelings during search or shopping. The two qualities are both highly desirable but, sadly, most brands are lacking in both.”

There are other consumer-driven reasons why you might seek to make your brand as meaningfully different as possible but there is perhaps a more important corporate benefit. Knowing what makes a brand meaningfully different provides a reference point for all the people working on that brand: inside and outside the company. It helps them know what to do and say and what not. Further, I would suggest that knowing what makes your brand meaningfully distinctive gives you a big head start in ensuring that it is distinctive.

A while back, Gordon Pincott and I developed a one day workshop called ValueDrivers that helped define a brand’s potential meaningful difference and then examine how best to reflect that difference in activities designed to amplify the brand, including design elements, marketing partners and sponsorships and the like (for more details see Brand Premium). It is always tough to get to one thing that everyone agreed on, but once people knew what the brand stood for it became really easy to identify what was likely to work for it and what was not and what design assets fit and what did not.

All of which makes me wonder if we are not making an artificial distinction between difference and distinctiveness. What do you think? Please share your thoughts. 


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  1. Michalis Michael, @DigitalMR_CEO, January 17, 2018

    I am coming more than two years later to this discussion but felt the urge to comment when I came across your article Nigel. One of the MB competitors BrainJuicer now rebranded to System 1 make a very strong point that Distinctiveness is much more important than Differentiation when it comes to purchasing decisions. I have to say I like the way Konstantin broke it down to pre and post. 

    I am sure you are all familiar with the old adage "there is no bad PR". In this vain System 1 make the point that Trump's hair which is not a very positive characteristic of his is very distinctive. It makes him recognizable from afar and this worked for him when he was chosen to be President even though most of us think his hair is a bit much.

    I find all this discussion very useful for DigitalMR as we continuously try to create composite metrics from social media posts and engagement that impact a brand's health and can serve as a proxy to sales. Any thoughts on what metrics from passive data on the web could qualify as distinctiveness? 


  2. tribemarketinguk, August 25, 2015

    Hey, thanks for sharing such a nice idea of brand experience.I am impressed with your ideas of advertisements, will definitely consider keep posting.     


  3. Nigel Hollis, August 06, 2015

    Hi Shann, apologies for not replying sooner but here goes.

    Honestly I think you are making an artificial distinction here. Is a brand at least in part a product of the consumer experience of that brand's product? Of course it is. One of the most important things that marketing can do is emphasize aspects of the brand experience so that people are primed to recognize and respond positively to it. What I can say is that validation of our Brand Premium metric against behavior demonstrates that people who have a high Premium score will pay more for the same brand than people who have a low one. That implies to me that attitudinal differentiation does matter and it is not just a function of product features.

    With regard to the causation chestnut the same answer applies but really aren't many things in marketing subject to the chicken or egg argument? Did I buy the brand because it became salient to me or did the brand become more salient to me because I bought it?

  4. shann biglione, August 04, 2015

    Thanks Nigel. Interesting point you're making here. I'd be really curious to hear what the research tells you on the following, as I'm not an expert on the question:

    1. does that difference/price usually come more from the product or the brand? Let me take an example with a big variance: Mercedes Benz can claim a price premium over VW. I agree that some VW cars might be at least as good as Mercedes ones sometimes, but the Mercedes brand will dictate consumers will still evaluate it as more premium in general. In effect it's hard for a non premium brand to produce a premium product people trust, because they won't find it meaningfully credible. And premium brands can cash in on products that are fairly standard (ie luxury accessories). But was MB's price premium commended by a history of demonstrable product superiority, higher price point and sometimes product difference, or by its brand? I fear that the premium differentiation is often a function, again, of the product (great materials, exclusive engineering etc.), and that the brand differentiation is a halo of something else (unlike distinctiveness, which can more fully be attributed to the brand).

    2. I'm sure there is a very strong correlation between price premium and difference. But where is the causality (if there is a clear one)? Do people see brands as different because they're more expensive, or are they ready to pay more because they are seen as different? This reminds me of the question of behavior vs attitudes. The correlation is evident, but the causality can be counter intuitive to marketers.

  5. Nigel, July 30, 2015

    Hi Shann, thanks for the comment and the invite - I'll make a note for the next time that I am in China.

    I think Sharp and I differ more in terms of what he ignores than what he talks about. For instance, Sharp does not address the issue of pricing in How Brands Grow. That is a huge omission when the classical definition of a brand refers to the ability to command a price premium over close competition. And the research evidence shows a stronger relationship between premium and perceived difference than perceived distinctiveness. I will leave the point about corporate and consumer for another post. 

  6. Shann Biglione, July 30, 2015

    Hi Nigel,

    I remember leaving a comment on this topic here a while back. The essence was that my reading of it so far is closer to the Sharp view (even though I know you two are not besties). I personally see a lot of chances for a brand to be distinctive (and this includes the tone of voice and positioning for me, they are just ways to make the brand easier to identify - like Innocent in the UK for ex), but difference can only truly come from the product and the way it answers a need (which is much more rare). I highly doubt that consumers see a real difference between Nike and Adidas, Coke and Pepsi and so on (I even think the difference between Apple and Android are thinner and thinner now that both products do 99% the same). They will of course identify very distinctive brands, but if pressed would not mind having to chose one over the other, and most of their attitudes will be the results of post rationalizing previous choices. So for me it wouldn't be a surprised to realize that from a research perspective the two are very close since ultimately we are probably measuring the same thing. But the semantics do matter, because differentiation expresses something that can be misleading for brand planners. Building distinctiveness is about mental cues that can be owned by the brand, which is a much simpler (and more effective) undertaking than trying to be seen as serving a different purpose than your competitors. That all being said, I do absolutely agree with you that making a brand "meaningfully different" plays a very catalyzing corporate role, for the reasons you outlined. But let's not forget that ultimately our job is to wow the consumers, and thus, when researching consumers I think our measures should look at ways we can translate our corporate difference in measurable distinctive attributes (which would filter a lot of it out).

    Side note, if you ever come back to China I would love to invite you to the Zenith offices!

    Regards, Shann.

  7. Nigel Hollis, May 27, 2015

    Thanks for the comments. 

    Konstantin, you offer a nice, simple way to distinguish between the two qualities but I suspect the reality is far more complex! One of the things I see in our data is that a brand that later grows strongly will initially be seen as different but not meaningful. People have yet to make their minds up as to whether that difference is relevant and important to them. That said, when different and distinctive are related qualities maybe what they are really saying is that the new brand stands out!

  8. Konstantin, May 27, 2015

    Hi Nigel,

    I'm not sure if the distinction between difference and distictiveness is artificial or not - but I do find that one of the better ways to think about the two is in terms of timing: pre-purchase vs. post-purchase.

    That is, distinctiveness is what helps your brand stand out during search and shopping (e.g. drive salience - as you write above actually), whereas differentiation refers more to the actual product or service experience afterwards.

    Doesn't always work as neatly as this of course, but there are very few people who would argue that you only need one of the two when you decide to present it this way!


  9. Rajendra Grewal, May 26, 2015
    Define your product's marketspace> Then DIFFERENTIATE your product offering> Deepen the consumer connect > Defend the turf captured !

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