Why distinctiveness does matter to brands

by Nigel Hollis | March 15, 2017

Professor Byron Sharp and the Ehrenberg Bass Institute have long championed distinctiveness as an important brand asset. They have been equally forthright in denouncing the role of perceived differentiation. While I agree on the importance of distinctiveness, I have to disagree with their viewpoint on differentiation and see the two qualities complementary.

In the past I have argued that brands should seek differentiation and distinctiveness. At the time my argument was supported by case studies and more general learning, but since then Kantar Millward Brown has demonstrated a far more explicit relationship between meaningful differentiation and price paid. However, what I have come to realize is that one of the reasons distinctiveness is important is because it helps trigger brand associations that help differentiate a brand from its competition. Recognition is a means to an end, not just an end in itself.


If a brand possesses a unique and unmistakable identity then it can be described as “distinctive.” Distinctiveness ensures a brand be recognized on a crowded shelf or web page. Recognition triggers an intuitive reaction, hopefully positive, and influences whether that brand is bought. In today’s cluttered world that is a huge advantage. The more easily recognized and the stronger the intuitive positive reaction, the more likely the brand is to be bought.

But what defines that intuitive reaction? I believe it is all the associations created by past interaction with the brand including product experience, advertising and word of mouth. While these associations may not be consciously considered – unless the buyer is given reason to stop and think – they underpin the intuitive reaction. Dig deeper and you will likely find that those specific brand associations will include ones that can be summarized into four top level groupings:

  1. Affinity – a general positive attitude toward the brand
  2. Relevance – a belief that the brand will meet specific needs
  3. Uniqueness – the feeling that there is no other brand like it
  4. Dynamism – the belief that the brand is setting the trends for its category

Each of these groupings brings with it certain benefits. The first two are important to stimulating demand for a brand and the last two are particularly important to justifying the brand’s price point and encouraging initial trial. So distinctiveness is important because it triggers positive associations, not just because it helps people notice a brand in a crowded display.

What do you think? Please share your thoughts. 


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  1. Nigel, March 29, 2017

    Thanks for the comments. Apologies for the delay but I have been on the road (expect a few blog posts about marketing in Bangladesh, India and Saudi Arabia).

    Per, interesting point and from a marketing only viewpoint I would have to agree. However, look at any brand that has really shaken up its category and grown fast and you will find it is unique. Creating something new and meaningfully different is the best way to generate growth and get positive associations to stick to the brand. However, if you make it distinctive those associations will be more easily triggered to affect future purchase.

    Marco, the equity model Kantar Millward Brown has developed has been extensively validated against actual shopping behavior, including price paid not just brand bought. All our evidence points to difference affecting price paid more than brand bought. Most academic and practitioner models ignore price so I am not surprised that they find it difficult to prove the value of difference. They are looking in the wrong place. 

  2. Marco Vriens, March 17, 2017

    Hi Nigel: I have few points that may add to this discussion:

    1. Recognition (and awareness) I think can be a means to itself, i.e. have a direct relationship with sales via consideration, first come to mind, or direct (see Nedungadi paper 1990).

    2. I think in order to make progress we need clarity and definition of constructs (and yes validity, see Borsboom, 2004). This ties to the measurement challenge, to be left for another post.

    3. Intuitive reaction, I would assume, refers to "system 1" (defined in the literature) part of memory. Past interactions can also lead to explicit attitudes not just implicit attitudes. Moreover, the past literature has shown that explicit in general has a bigger impact than implicit.  Granted there is not much research available on implicit vs explicit in the context of consumer choices.  

    4. Your grouping of brand associations, I would like to see the proof-points.  From the literature that I have seen, there is little consistency in type of associations that play a role (and there are several different categorizations (e.g. attributes vs benefits, functional vs emotional, product vs organizational, etc.).  In addition to type the sheer number of associations may be as important.

    5. Uniqueness, in some research by Professor Sharp, and in my own research (under review) where this was tested it has been hard to show the incremental value of uniqueness. In many categories this may not be as important as some believe. At the very least it has been hard to show when/where it works.

    6. Lastly, with respect to associations, a brand can also trigger negative associations (think VW emission crisis).


  3. Guy Abraham, March 16, 2017

    Hi Nigel.

    Thanks for sharing a really interesting perspective. I agree with you that we should see the two as complimentary. Additionally, we also need to understand what differentiating means in certain category context.

    As an example, I work for a Global NGO and it is important that our brand is distinctive in it's positioning and expression externally. However we also need to differentiate (whether that is in content delivery etc./ DRTV.) vs. our competitor set.

    It is positive closed circle of 8 and as you have mentioned, it is important that the two work in tandem rather than focusing on one specifically.

    Thanks for your continued blogging.


  4. Per Kristensen, March 16, 2017

    Hi Nigel,

    If I understand you right, the essence of your reasoning is that distinctiveness is the one parameter to look for, since distinctiveness is a vehicle for being a) noticed AND b) call on impressions of the brand stored in the mind. Impressions that are generated from all historical experience of the brand, from own direct experience to hearsay. The experience can in turn most probably sorted in different categories such as affinity, relevance, uniqueness, dynamism. In that case I think you're right. The important part is to go for distinctiveness first, not uniqueness. It is distinctiveness over differentiation or, slightly different phrased, differentiation via distinctiveness.

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