Differentiation vs distinctiveness

By Woven Agency, Monday October 30, 2023

The USP — the unique selling proposition. For decades, the clamour to find it has inspired unwavering faith among marketers and sales teams, with the immortal words ‘But what’s our USP’ booming out of meeting rooms across the world.

And it’s all thanks to advertising hall-of-famer, Rosser Reeves, who said:

“The proposition must be one that the competition either cannot or does not offer. It must be unique — either uniqueness of the brand or a claim not otherwise made in that particular field of advertising.”

While Reeves was the first to roll up the USP snowball and chuck it down the hill, others would take on the role of gravity + 45-degree slope and create the avalanche, turning the USP from an interesting notion into an immutable law of marketing physics. 

Take the academic and economic theorist Michael Porter, who said:

“In a differentiation strategy, a firm seeks to be unique in its industry along some dimensions that are widely valued by buyers. It selects one or more attributes that many buyers in an industry perceive as important, and uniquely positions itself to meet those needs”

Then there’s Al Ries, cofounder and chairman of consulting firm Ries & Ries, who said:

“Each product, depending on the category, has a set of different attributes. Your product becomes unique if it’s known by one of these attributes. Owning such an attribute will allow you to successfully highlight your product or service. But please note, you cannot own the same attribute or position as your competitor.”

The message was clear: brand uniqueness drives business. 

But there’s a problem with uniqueness…

In that it very rarely exists. Al Ries idea of ‘attribute ownership’ drum is largely a myth — brands don’t really own attributes, whether they be words, product features or types of behaviour. Such attributes are inherently shareable, public-domain assets — ones to be used, of course, but not uniquely owned. 

And even if uniqueness was more common in the Manhattan-skylined golden era of advertising, it isn’t anymore. There are too many brands, too many products and too many voices for USPs to exist to any meaningful degree. 

It’s this realisation that the USP isn’t a marketing magic bullet that’s led more contemporary marketers to eschew differentiation for that other D — distinctiveness.

As Byron Sharp, Professor of Marketing Science and author of the seminal How Brands Grow, says:

“Rather than striving for meaningful, perceived differentiation, marketers should seek meaningless distinctiveness.”

As we leaf through our much-leafed-through copy of How Brands Grow, we see how the influential professor sees the ‘new world’ of marketing:

Differentiation is out, distinctiveness is in. USPs? Who needs them. Instead, the future is ‘relevant associations’ (i.e. shared characteristics between buyer and brand). 

Distinctiveness — the idea of not focusing on being unique but instead making your brand easily identifiable to customers — has been marketing’s hot message for the past ten years or more. And in a world where uniqueness is rarer than a jellyfish skeleton, it’s easy to see why. 

But Sharp’s approach, taken up as it has been by an army of marketers, has become every bit as dogmatic as the USP pamphleteers. This need to ‘ditch the old ways’ (a common marketing rallying cry) has created a cult of the new and pooh-poohing of the old. 

Sharp states a key reason why differentiation doesn’t matter is because ‘brands aren’t perceived as different to competitors’. 

We would argue very differently.

Brands might struggle to find uniqueness in their product — there are always alternatives. But we all know Jack Daniels is different to Famous Grouse. BMW to Fiat. Apple to Android. 

That’s because these brands position themselves on different characteristics — innovation, disruption, tradition, reliability, sex appeal — and that helps us as consumers relate to the brand and make a buying decision based on that relatability. These characteristics might not be unique, but they do help brands differentiate, and this helps people buy into their brand and their products. 

Are buying decisions always fuelled by brand differentiation? No. But as Koen Pauwels’s research shows, brand differentiation creates brand perception which does drive brand purchase, so it’s not something to be overlooked.

And as Kantar’s research shows, the power of being different trumps even the much-vaunted new-age marketing aim of being salient, as the below chart for growing brands reveals:

As we can see, difference — in particular meaningful difference — is the key factor in creating brand stand-out and favourable brand perception. 

Differentiation as a price justifier

A quick note on this — as it’s something Byron Sharp’s (excellent) book doesn’t dwell on. Differentiation is a major justifier of premium pricing. Apple’s differentiated brand is a huge reason why they can charge £1,000 for an iPhone, whereas Motorola can charge £200. 

Differentiation is a way of making consumers look at a purchase beyond just the thing they’re buying. Whether you want to call it storytelling or the ‘cool’ factor, Apple’s differentiated brand has changed how people perceive them, and means they can charge a higher price because of it.

It’s not ‘vs’. It’s ‘and’.

There are many articles on why distinctiveness is better than differentiation. But such a dichotomous view is unnecessary, even harmful. 

It shouldn’t be differentiation vs distinctiveness, it should be differentiation and distinctiveness. 

Differentiation is about making sure your brand is perceived to be relatively different from alternatives in areas that matter to your audience. This, as Koen Pauwels and Kantar have shown, helps influence purchasing decisions (and premium purchasing decisions at that).

While Byron Sharp’s distinctiveness is about making your brand easily identifiable and putting it top of mind when it comes to buying decisions (salience). 

Now, if you’re scratching your head and thinking ‘They sound quite similar to me’, then you’re at the same place we are. We think differentiation and distinctiveness are two sides of the same coin, but they do two separate things:

When a brand is differentiated, it convinces consumers that it’s sufficiently different to the competition on a range of intended attributes (like the ones we mentioned earlier), which influences the buyer behaviour. When a brand is distinctive it looks and behaves — as Byron Sharp says — ‘like itself’. It stands out and connects with the consumer. 

The differentiation phase comes in during brand positioning — in finding out what your customers want, what your company can do to deliver it, and how it can do it better than the competition.

The distinctiveness phase comes after — in the look-and-feel of the brand, its packaging, website, creative campaigns, and so on. 

Be different, be distinctive and (near) uniqueness will follow

The lesson here is that there’s still much to be gained from seeking relative difference — not uniqueness. Don’t chase the magic bullets of USPs or attribute ownership, because they more than likely don’t exist. But relative difference absolutely does, and finding it through brand positioning — and then through distinctive brand assets — will help you connect better with your ideal audiences.

So, it’s not differentiation vs distinctiveness. It’s differentiation and distinctiveness. Remember that when it comes to positioning your brand and creative its identity, and you’ll be pretty much unique…

Want to be different and distinctive? We’re right here.