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Differentiation Vs Distinctiveness: Why Visibility Trumps Uniqueness in Marketing

Updated: Apr 23

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The world of marketing has sparked multiple raging debates over the decades, one of which has still been blazing on - how do you make your brand stand out? Many believe the answer lies in creating a completely unique product. But what if I told you that for most products, achieving high visibility is a more reliable path to revenue than chasing radical differentiation?

Through this article, I intend to challenge existing assumptions about product positioning and introduce you to the concept of distinctiveness, a powerful tool that can elevate your brand's profile without getting lost in the sea of competitors. But first, a little bit of context setting -

Understanding the Divide

To value the impact of distinctiveness and how it is essential for visibility, let's first define both aspects -

  • Differentiation - Focuses on substantive differences between products or value propositions; think holographic keyboard vs. mechanical keyboard, or a marketing firm specializing solely in LinkedIn Ads compared to a generic marketing agency.

  • Distinctiveness - Emphasizes superficial distinctions that set your brand apart visually or through branding elements; examples include the golden arches of McDonald's, or the signature blue of Tiffany & Co. 

Based on various research documents published by the Northwestern University - Kellogg School of Management and the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute, it is clear that differentiation just does not matter for the vast majority of products. This is further validated from the market's surprising appetite for redundancy. Consider, for example, all the similar luxury products under the Louis Vuitton umbrella and their near-identical competitors who deviate on superficial grounds such as with patterns or logos. Think of all the "me-too" product variations on Amazon, too.

The real world doesn't value uniqueness as much as marketers think it does. This is because buyers have pre-conceived notions of what they want. They're more likely to purchase familiar items that meet their expectations than veer off into uncharted territory with radically different offerings.

Backing the Opinion up with Actual Examples

Here are a couple more instances of how distinctiveness is the name of the game in every sector -

  • The Movie Industry, Rehashing Familiar Narratives with a Fresh Twist - Blockbuster hits often follow familiar story tropes with minor variations. Think Avatar, which arguably recycles the plot of Dances with Wolves or Pocahontas or The Last Samurai, but on an alien planet. People crave the comfort of familiar narratives, even with a fresh coat of paint. Films will either combine familiar story structures with unexpected genre twists to appeal to fans, or reimagine classic themes with a modern context that can resonate with new audiences.

  • Fast Food Wars, Repurposing Brands for Familiar Products - Burger chains like The Wendy's Company and Five Guys Enterprises thrive despite giants like McDonald's. Why? They deliver a familiar product (hamburgers!) with a distinctive brand identity and marketing approach. Wendy's is known for its sassy social media presence and humorous advertising, while Five Guys focuses on a no-frills, never-frozen ingredients and customizable toppings catering to a health-conscious market segment within the familiar burger realm. These chains understand their target audience and tailor their marketing messages accordingly. Wendy's attracts a younger demographic with its edgy humor, while Five Guys focuses on highlighting the quality of their ingredients to appeal to health-conscious consumer

wendy's and five guys comparison

The takeaway? Focus on giving the market what it already wants, with a twist of distinctiveness to grab attention.

Leveraging Distinctiveness for Your Product or Service

As established, companies, both large and small, win when they compete for visibility rather than uniqueness. Product marketers spend too much time avoiding competition through positioning, rather than gaining as much visibility as possible. Here's a breakdown of how distinctiveness can be leveraged to grab attention -

  • Memorable Branding - A strong brand identity acts as a visual shortcut, instantly triggering recognition and trust among consumers. Think of the iconic red can that set The Coca-Cola Company up for success. Developing a consistent logo, color scheme, or mascot that resonates with your target audience becomes a cornerstone of brand recall. This visual identity should be seamlessly woven across all marketing materials, packaging, and online presence, reinforcing brand recognition with every customer touchpoint.

  • Compelling Marketing Materials: With the massive information overload out there, cutting through the noise requires captivating visuals and messaging. Gone are the days of bland product descriptions. Use high-quality images, infographics, or even short videos to showcase your product's benefits in a visually engaging way. Craft clear, concise messaging that highlights the unique selling proposition (USP) and resonates with your target audience's needs and desires. By piquing their interest with captivating visuals and messaging, you can turn potential customers into brand advocates.

  • Visually Appealing Products - Even in a market saturated with similar products, unique design elements can make yours stand out. This doesn't necessarily mean a complete overhaul of functionality. Consider the minimalist design aesthetic in Apple products or the futuristic vacuum cleaners sold by Dyson. A visually appealing product can spark interest and create a sense of innovation, even if the core function remains familiar. Remember, people are drawn to aesthetics, and a product that's pleasing to the eye can nudge them towards making a purchase.

apple products vs dyson vacuum cleaner comparison

In today's crowded marketplace, simply having a great product isn't enough. Consumers need to see you first.

So, When Does Differentiation Shine?

The recipe for success is to give the market what it already wants; in other words, meeting existing demand rather than creating demand for something new. Yes, sometimes creating a new product category with a unique innovation can be successful. But this is the exception, not the rule. Situations where differentiation can be crucial are -

1. Strategic B2B Purchases: When ROI Reigns Supreme

The game changes when it comes to complex B2B purchases. Here, companies are investing significant resources in products that will directly impact their bottom line. They're not buying on a whim – they're conducting thorough evaluations and demanding a demonstrably differentiated value proposition. This is where differentiation becomes a key player -

  • High Price Tag, High Scrutiny - B2B products with hefty price points undergo rigorous analysis before purchase. Companies need to be convinced that the product offers a clear advantage over competitors, justifying the investment. A demonstrably differentiated value proposition, backed by data and ROI projections, becomes essential to stand out from the crowd.

  • Focus on Return on Investment (ROI) - B2B buyers care about the measurable impact a product will have on their business. Differentiation in this context could involve features that streamline processes, increase efficiency, or generate a clear return on investment. By showcasing a unique value proposition that demonstrably improves the buyer's bottom line, companies can win over even the most discerning B2B customers.

2. Highly Specialized Services: Expertise is King

For professional services like legal or financial consulting, differentiation is not just an option – it's a necessity. Clients in these sectors are seeking specific expertise and solutions to complex problems. A generic approach simply won't cut it. Here's why differentiation is key -

  • Unique Solutions for Unique Challenges - Every client has unique needs and challenges. Differentiation allows service providers to showcase their expertise in specific areas, demonstrating a deep understanding of the client's industry and the ability to craft customized solutions.

  • Building Trust and Credibility - With all that competition, highlighting unique specializations and proven track records in specific areas helps build trust and credibility with potential clients. By showcasing a differentiated approach, service providers position themselves as the go-to experts for clients with complex needs.

By strategically leveraging differentiation in these specific situations, businesses can stand out from the crowd and attract clients seeking a unique solution to their specific challenges.

In Conclusion

While differentiation has its place, for most products, achieving high visibility through distinctiveness is a more reliable strategy for driving sales and achieving long-term success. By default, assume your product should be positioned similarly to competitors, focusing on visibility through content marketing, social media engagement, public relations (PR), and influencer marketing. Only when a strong case for differentiation exists, such as with strategic B2B purchases, should you invest heavily in creating a completely unique offering. So, put down the blueprint for that revolutionary new keyboard, and focus on making your existing product the most visible one on the shelf!


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