James Womersley

1 December 2023

Delivering clarity on differentiation and distinctiveness 

The battle between differentiation and distinctiveness rages on, but if marketers want to create groundbreaking work then they need to embrace both

Differentiation and distinctiveness: two 15-letter words that have the power to make marketing professionals break out in hives. Confused marketers seeking definitional or practical clarity on LinkedIn or X will be met by a maelstrom of fervent debate. Some commentators evangelise for one concept over the other, some assert that both concepts have evident strategic value, and some insist that the two concepts are essentially (both at a linguistic and at a practical level) the same. In his book Good Strategy / Bad Strategy, Richard Rumelt states that leaders must absorb ‘complexity and ambiguity, passing on to the organisation a simpler problem’. So how can organisations and marketing leaders absorb the complexity surrounding differentiation and distinctiveness, and deliver clarity for their marketing teams?

​​​​​​​Back and forth

The debate around differentiation and distinctiveness has a long history. For many years, differentiation was top dog. Philip Kotler and Kevin Lane Keller, in their multi-edition behemoth Marketing Management, preached its gospel, exhorting companies to leverage meaningful differences (either real or perceived). Jack Trout and Steve Rivkin buttressed that view in 2000, declaring that companies must ‘differentiate or die’. But this emphasis on differentiation was emphatically, unapologetically challenged in 2010 with the publication of Byron Sharp’s How Brands Grow. Sharp acknowledged that brands demonstrate differences yet argued that ‘differentiation plays a small role in how brands compete’. He advocated for distinctiveness: a heightened focus on recognisability, removal of cognitive friction, and investment in distinctive brand assets such as colours, logos, symbols and characters.

More recently, the pendulum has started to swing back. Kantar’s 2017 BrandZ study underlined how brands that were perceived to be both highly disruptive and different increased in brand value by 28%, whereas those that were perceived as low in both metrics declined by 5%. The company’s BrandZ Breakthrough Brands analysis, unveiled at Cannes Lions 2023, showed that ‘difference’ is the number one brand factor on share outperformance, accounting for 25% of brand impact compared to 0.6% for salience. According to Kantar, it ‘exposes as false the assertion that difference doesn’t exist between brands or matter much’.

From context to clarity

So where does all this leave us? For my money, the most convincing positions have come from figures within the marketing effectiveness community like Mark Ritson and Tom Roach, both of whom advocate a ‘cakeist’ approach. For them, differentiation and distinctiveness can and should complement one another – they are both vital sources of competitive advantage for modern brands. It’s all in the blend. Ritson has also put forward the most graspable definitions of differentiation and distinctiveness, paraphrased below:

  • Differentiation: having ‘more of something’ that matters to consumers (an attribute, an association, a belief) relative to your competitors. This is not about uniqueness, but instead about comparative difference.
  • Distinctiveness: standing out, being easily identifiable. This is about the brand investing in distinctive assets and ‘looking like itself’.

Let’s apply these definitions to a real-life marketing example: the water brand Liquid Death. High levels of both differentiation and distinctiveness are at play here. The brand differentiates itself through its irreverent heavy-metal positioning, its environmental advocacy and its idiosyncratic packaging. It has also made itself highly distinctive, through the consistent use of its dripping skull logo, its neo-gothic script and its gruesome cartoon aesthetic.

The example of Liquid Death also highlights the potentially porous nature of differentiation and distinctiveness: the skull logo is both distinctive and a visual articulation of a deeper, differentiated positioning. Similarly, Liquid Death’s metal cans are both differentiated (a meaningfully different product attribute compared to the plastic bottles of other water brands) and distinctive (a silhouette that, when seen next to plastic water bottles, makes you think of Liquid Death). This doesn’t mean that differentiation and distinctiveness are the same; just that Liquid Death’s cans sit at the centre of a differentiation-distinctiveness Venn diagram.

    Have your cake...

    What to do with this added clarity on differentiation vs distinctiveness? If you’re a marketing leader then have this conversation out in the open with your team. Establish shared, easily understandable definitions, and showcase how differentiation and distinctiveness work in tandem. This will help inoculate marketers against confusion-ridden online wormholes.

    Greater internal clarity will lead to heightened confidence in the application of differentiation and distinctiveness. Ultimately, these two key levers of modern brand building are both focused on putting distance between you and your competitors. In a world that seems increasingly intent on reverting to a visual and conceptual mean, a strategy of undifferentiated, non-distinctive sameness is a recipe for bland, forgettable, underperforming brand communications.

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