Should your brand be different or distinctive? Or both?

Is there any difference between brand differentiation and brand distinctiveness? Is one more important than the other? We believe that brands should seek both to succeed.

We’ll clarify the difference between the two strategies, and explain how both approaches when combined can add incredible value to your branding efforts.

Brand Differentiation

Brand differentiation is the cornerstone of any brand strategy and is achieved by owning a unique and relevant place in the hearts and minds of customers. Imagine a customer’s mind divided into pigeonholes. If you want to own that mental file labelled ‘mp3 player’ (Apple) or ‘electric cars’ (Tesla) then strong differentiation will allow you to connect with your customers more effectively.

So how can your brand differentiate itself? What makes your brand the “only” in its category? A powerful exercise for answering this question is to complete an onlyness statement (courtesy of Marty Neumeier’s book ZAG).

Brand differentiation - onlyness statement exercise

The BENEFIT TO CUSTOMER is your radical differentiation, the one thing that you do (or how you do it) that no one else in your market can claim. If you’re struggling, it’s time to do some research on your competitors. List what they claim, and then position yourself away from them.

Here are some examples of onlyness statements:

HARLEY DAVIDSON is the only MOTORCYCLE MANUFACTURER that MAKE BIG LOUD MOTORCYCLES

CIRQUE DU SOLEIL is the only CIRCUS that RADIATES WEST END SOPHISTICATION

There is a lot more to differentiating your brand than just this exercise but it will certainly get you thinking about what truly differentiates your brand in a sea of sameness.

Brand Distinctiveness

Distinctiveness is a brand’s ability to stand out so that customers can quickly notice, recognise, and recall their brand over others. Not only this, but distinctiveness or brand assets can be trademarked, whereas points of differentiation cannot.

Distinctive brand assets can be a strikingly simple logo you never forget (Nike Swoosh), some luxurious packaging you cannot bear to throw away (Tiffany), an awe-inspiring experience when you visit a store (Apple), an annoyingly catchy jingle you hum all day long (Shake n’ Vac), or a Christmas TV advert that you can’t wait to share with your friends (John Lewis).

Brand distinctiveness is achieved by identifying and then creating a unique set of memorable brand assets. The repetitiveness and recognisability of brand assets will help remove consumer cognitive burden and set you apart from your competitors.

The Power of Two

When brand differentiation and distinctiveness are combined it allows a brand to command greater mind-share which in turn means improved market-share. Brand differentiation is the first, most critical step that is the hardest to achieve, but once the brand differentiation is defined, organisations should then identify the right brand assets and craft a story around who they are, making sure this story resonates and lingers with their customers. 

For example, the Amazon logo has a smile which goes from A to Z, this asset used throughout their campaigns is not only distinctive but also helps them articulate their differentiation of providing greater value to customers by a combination of extraordinary customer service and a comprehensive selection of products.

Another great example is Direct Line’s greater emphasis on quality of service and brand reputation over price. This is reflected in the ‘Winston Wolf’ campaign which uses Harvey Keitel’s character from the film Pulp Fiction to convey Direct Line’s positioning as an insurance company that doesn’t appear on price-comparison websites but can fix problems quickly and effectively.

For those where true differentiation is unrealistic, distinctiveness offers a reasonable alternative, but aspire for both!