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So is it distinctiveness over differentiation?

Or distinctiveness and differentiation?

Or even distinctiveness after differentiation?

At the moment, it’s definitely versus.

Byron Sharp kicked this all off with his call for meaningless distinctiveness.

Everyone then picked their spot along the argument spectrum.

Until Felipe Thomaz, an associate professor of marketing at Oxford, stormed in recently from the ultraviolet end with his assertion that by removing differentiation Sharp had broken branding.

Of course, we all exaggerate to make a point. It’s our job.

And I assume we can all agree that distinctiveness and differentiation both have some role to play with brands.

But what’s their relationship?

OK, here’s my position. You can’t have one without the other.

Well, you can.

You can pick any old font you like for a logo, write a tagline with a buzzword, a jingle with an earworm, create some random character, cast a celebrity, choose a colour that can be seen from the Moon.

And tell yourself the only kind of meaning that matters for an asset is the link to the brand.

Or you can keep banging on about USP’s, obsessing about tiny functional advantages, crowing about your latest tech enhancement, convincing yourself your brand is a one-off with its own exclusive club of customers

And pulling up the drawbridge to your ivory tower to differentiate and not die.

But either way it’s going to end in tears.

Because from my point of view as a consumer, distinctiveness, differentiation, it all comes down to the same thing. Why should I choose you?

Maybe if you’re the only brand available to me in a situation, mentally as well as physically, that’ll be enough. Even then, how did you build up that availability in my mind? With my needs, my goals?

But in most situations I’m going to have a choice. That might get made in a System 1 flash, where my feelings matter most, or a System 2 ponder, where my thoughts come more into play.

It’s true that if I don’t notice or recognise you, you won’t even be in the game.

But if there’s nothing different about you, then to me you’re the same as everyone else. So why should I give you a try or pay more for you?

Maybe in this endless debate it will always look like ‘distinctiveness then differentiation’ from the evidence back-end and ‘differentiation then distinctiveness’ from the creative front-end.

But from a consumer’s point of view, the two are one. Or at least they should be. How you stand out, what you stand for. Both equally important. And interdependent.

Anyway, that’s my position and I’m sticking to it.

Every brand needs a positioning.


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