Back in the day, when ads were ads, you’d sometimes hear a quote that seemed to sum up strategic thinking.
“A difference that makes no difference is no difference.”
People were paraphrasing William James, one of the leading American thinkers of the late nineteenth century.
Interesting the quote was in the negative.
That’s because at the time everyone just assumed advertising was about getting across what made your brand different.
So people used to interrogate the product, as Robin Wright said, ‘until it confessed its strengths’. They looked at every feature, every claim that could be made, every aspect of the brand’s story, until they found something different.
But the smart people knew that wasn’t the end. A difference was only any use if it was relevant to the people you were targeting.
In fact, the London ad agency Boase Massimi Pollitt, that became BMP Davidson Pearce, that became BMP DDB Needham, that became Adam & Eve/DDB, defined its mission as producing adverting that was ‘relevant AND distinctive’.
The agency started at a time when most advertising was so over-researched that it became generic - relevant but generic. One of BMP’s rivals, Collett Dickinson Pearce, put all their focus on creating advertising that was distinctive. They even refused to research it because they claimed research would blunt its effectiveness. But BMP knew it was all about the ‘AND’.
You’ll notice that even then people had a preference for saying ‘distinctive’ rather than ‘different’.
That has hung around ever since. I’m sure, to normal people, the two words have pretty similar meanings. ‘Different’ means not the same. ‘Distinctive’ is what distinguishes one person or thing from others. So I suppose distinctive is being noticeably different. It’s a sub-set.
More recently, though, the sets have separated. Partly it’s because in the marketing world, ‘difference’ became ‘differentiation’. People then started taking differentiation to mean ‘radically different’.
That played into the hands of the data hounds who were quick to show that actually perceptions of brands in a category were often quite similar.
Anyone using qualitative research would roll their eyes at this point and say of course the differences are small. Most brands in a category do a pretty good job, so they’re bound to perform pretty well in terms of category generics. The difference is more subtle. That’s why you need more subtle research.
Then the debate moved again and people started saying differentiation didn’t matter at all. Byron Sharp argued the case for focusing on distinctive assets - names, logos, colours, symbols, taglines, ad styles. For him, it was all about making a brand easy to remember and easy to find. He was essentially saying marketing wasn’t about motivating people to buy your brand, it was just about getting them to do it. He even referred to it as ‘meaningless distinctiveness’.
But that leaves us with a problem. Marketing is about satisfying people’s needs. Always has been, always will be.
And if all you do is meet the same need in the same way as your competitors, why should people choose you? Because your pack is red?
Speaking of which, if you really do think it’s all meaningless, I look forward to reading your brief for a new pack design. Or identity. Or advertising. How do you think creative people have ideas?
Luckily, the counter-revolution has started. People are now arguing again for meaningful differentiation. It’s nothing new. It’s back to Ries & Trout, Kotler and Aaker. Really, it’s all the way back to Levitt.
I’d simply add a caveat. That point of difference doesn’t have to be big, it just has to matter. And what matters to people is what they need, what they value.
So sorry Mr James, your quote is great, it really is, I love it, but if it’s OK, I’d like to suggest a tiny little tweak:
“A difference that makes the difference is the difference.”