March 18, 2017


  by Nigel Hollis

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:

    Affinity – a general positive attitude toward the brand
    Relevance – a belief that the brand will meet specific needs
    Uniqueness – the feeling that there is no other brand like it
    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.



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