Stop being different: Simon Bird on why standing out isn’t necessarily a good thing

For much of the last few hundred years being a scientist was a somewhat risky profession. It was fine if you were tinkering around the edges of the status quo but if you were proposing ground-breaking new ideas then at best you risked being mocked and having your work banned and, at worst, you were branded a heretic and burnt at the stake or committed to an asylum. The fact that we managed to learn anything is somewhat remarkable.

Of course, looking backwards it’s hard to believe the chap who suggested surgeons might want to wash their hands between patients to prevent the spread of disease was mocked and fired. Even with all the data proving he was right, it wasn’t until decades later when Louis Pasteur explained how germs worked that the medical community finally accepted that he possibly had a point, by which time poor old Ignaz Semmelweis had died (beaten to death in a mental asylum).     

Our field of marketing has seen huge advancement in the knowledge of how advertising works and how people buy, in the last few decades. But, just like previous scientific discoveries, the adoption of new learning has not been particularly fast.

One of the hypotheses that we should now accept as incorrect is the theory that people need a reason to choose a product and therefore advertising needs to be about a point of difference. This concept is still widely propagated.

One of the reasons it’s such a hard position to leave behind is that people in focus groups will almost always say that they chose product X for a certain reason and we self-corroborate this information because we tend to think we behave this way ourselves. 

The Ehrenberg Bass Institute has been researching the topic for decades and they conclude that only around 17 percent of users of well-known and well-advertised products see them as different or unique (individually different or unique is only reported by around 10 percent of users). The evidence is fairly convincing across very diverse categories and several countries that, despite considerable investment and energy, chasing differentiation is a rather unachievable goal. Furthermore, their research also shows that even for the few brands that are thought of as different or unique, there isn’t any correlation with increased penetration or market share. 

Experts in the field of ‘human behaviour and decision making’ would not find these numbers at all surprising. They use a term ‘satisficing’, first introduced by Herbert Simon in 1956, to describe the way we make most decisions. They suggest that far from analysing a set of options, we simply choose the first one that seems satisfactory; or, put another way, the first one that we are unlikely to regret buying. This is why familiarity and popularity are so influential in product choice; a new, unfamiliar choice could be better but we usually avoid this option as it carries an inherent element of risk and possible regret. 

These findings are hardly new yet the belief in ‘difference’ lives on. Perhaps, as with Semmelwies and his hand washing, we need a Louis Pasteur, a different source of proof in order to change our minds. Hopefully, a recently published Harvard Business Review study will help (perhaps, at least in part, because Harvard Business Review is a familiar and trusted information source).

In their June 2015 edition, in an article titled “A Better Way To Map Brand Strategy”, Niraj Dawar and Charan K. Bagga referenced some data that provides further evidence for, and some nuance upon, the conclusions that the Ehrenberg Bass Institute have reached. 

What the HBR researchers found was the more representative of the category a brand is (i.e. the less differentiated it is), the higher the sales volume or market share. The overt implication is that, for big mainstream brands, differentiation is not just unnecessary but something undesirable. 

Indeed, brands such as Band-Aid, Google and Coke have become so representative of their categories that they have become synonyms for their entire category. 

The HBR research also found that the degree at which a brand stands out from its competitors is correlated with higher pricing and lower sales volume. So, standing out is not without benefit, and very important for premium brands, but tends to only be achievable for brands with relatively small market share. 

Similarly, the Ehrenberg Bass Institute concludes that, while some ‘creative standout’, which they refer to as ‘distinctiveness’, is good for boosting the effectiveness of advertising, aiming for complete standout i.e. true differentiation, is largely unachievable and unnecessary for mainstream brands. And for small, niche brands which are often differentiated, the path to growth will almost always involve becoming more representative of their category, which will naturally involve a reduction in levels of perceived differentiation. 

A slight caveat to the above is when products really are different. No one would, or should, suggest that Tesla or Prius marketing not involve reference to being hybrid or electric against an entire category of ‘normal’ cars, or that AirBnB not call out its difference versus hotels.  But truly differentiated products, those that the users think are different, not just the makers, are much rarer than we think (as the Ehrenberg Bass Institute data illustrates). It’s also worth noting that all the above examples are, at least currently, relatively niche players in their respective categories and it remains to be seen how different they might be perceived if they ever became the dominant choice in their category.  

If we can, as an industry, move on from our attachment to differentiation there are two clear benefits. One is avoiding wasting hours in workshops looking for a ‘differentiated’ product feature that doesn’t have any consumer value or isn’t really different – I was once briefed to base an entire campaign on a car boot that was one centimeter longer than the main competitor’s car. The second, and much more valuable benefit, is having a much bigger pool to play in with regards advertising positioning and message.  

Campaigns like Cadbury Gorilla are off the table if differentiation is the goal, yet it helped both to sell more chocolate and to sell at a higher price. The now famous, charming and, most importantly, effective John Lewis Christmas campaigns wouldn’t be an option either.

Neither communicated a point of difference (or any information at all). Indeed, many of the leading brands in their categories, far from talking differentiation, merely take a category benefit and use that as their brand platform – Snickers talks satisfaction, Toyota Hilux talks reliability, John Lewis talks about the joy of Christmas giving etc although they do execute these platforms in wonderfully distinctive ways. 

So even if the facts don’t help us unlearn our belief in needing to be different, or have USP’s or shoppers needing a reason to buy something, in the interests of producing both more creative and more effective marketing we should probably leave differentiation behind.

  • Simon Bird is the group strategy director at Spark PHD. 

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