The Uncomfortable Truth About Brand Differentiation

Ok, so for a lot of you this post is going to be a little uncomfortable to read and indeed, I do expect some degree of push back and maybe even some abuse. However, stick with it as I do have a thought that I want to seed with you.

As a Brand Strategist and Planner, I’ve spent a good portion of my career talking about pen portraits and understanding target audiences – and it makes good logical sense.

I’ve studied quite a bit of Kotler and his chums in my time, and I have to admit, I’ve been drinking the cool aid on creating differentiated marketing segmentations for many years. It’s good solid thinking and makes sense.

But here’s the thing …

For hundreds of years some of the most intelligent and sophisticated individuals in society fundamentally believed that the earth was flat, and that bloodletting with leeches was a great way of making sick people better.

Marketing science is still in its infancy really, and though lots of very smart people agree with the theory, there is actually little or no hard scientific evidence that some of our more commonly held principles really work.

Lets just suppose for a moment that this is all very clever terminology, designed to rationalise the marketing activity that we all want to do.

I’m pretty sure that I have quoted, or nearly quoted the phrase, “Brands need to differentiate or die” on more than one occasion. But lets jump over to the other side of the fence and think like the consumers that we actually all are.

Did you ever stop to ask yourself about the brands you buy, when you buy them, and when you don’t? Believe it or not, I personally shop in Lidl and in Waitrose, sometimes in the same week and theoretically in the same day. As yet, I have not been diagnosed with any real form of schizophrenia or had any major personality shifts…

The truth behind most consumers is that they do the same.

I also buy Coke and Pepsi – and I do it all the time, and despite priding myself on having a somewhat discerning pallet, I really can’t tell the difference.

So, the idea that your target audience is an actual person that behaves in a predictable way day in day out doing exactly what you want them to is… well, just wrong.

If you perform the requisite in-depth research analysis of who actually buys your products over time, you are likely to be shocked. From the case studies that have been conducted, it’s pretty normal that most of your sales volume comes from occasional buyers of your product, those who are not actually your ‘target audience’ at all. With the market leader being bought only slightly more often but by more people.

As consumers the only differentiation we care deeply about is on a category level, then it comes down to the slightly woolly science of preference. Scratch that, I’m lazy about most things it’s about being EASY or at the very least easier to buy.

On average, I probably have to make 10-15 reasonably important decisions on a tricky day. That filters down to 20-50 non-important ones (tea or coffee, what sandwich, that sort of thing).

As animals we don’t like making decisions, decisions take time and consideration as well as all being far to busy. If there are on average 30,000 brands available in a normal supermarket, we would need to be in there a week to do the shopping.

So we simplify and we block out. We form shortcuts to solutions, and that’s how branding works.

At a brand level consumers care little about differentiation, but they care a lot about brands being distinctive and available.

Keeping your brand front of mind, so they don’t have to think, and placing them right in front of the consumer, in the places they are looking to buy them from is the key.

Your consumer is not loyal in any shape or form; in fact, they are probably not your consumers at all. At best you can hope that your marketing efforts get noticed, and if you are part of that lucky 10%, that your marketing assets get processed and your efforts are attributed to you, not the market leader or your competition.

So how does this stack up?

I will cover this a little more in my next blog as it’s not an easy answer… well actually the answer is easy but actually doing it, well that’s not quite so straight forward.

But…here are the basics:

  1. Get noticed.
  2. Strive for distinction.
  3. Forget differentiation.
  4. Be available.
  5. Be relevant.

I would love to hear your thoughts on the above and of course if you would like to discuss how this could affect your brand feel free to drop me a line.