There is a saying, reportedly Chinese in origin: May you live in interesting times. This is said ironically and almost as a curse because ‘uninteresting times’, of peace and tranquillity, are more life-enhancing than interesting ones.
Professor Byron Sharp of Ehrenberg Bass Institute for Marketing Science has produced some ground-breaking evidence-based research that is detailed in his book How Brands Grow, its sequel How Brands Grow part 2 that has plunged the marketing industry into interesting times judging by the number of debates it has spawned regarding what it means for brand strategy.
Byron Sharp draws an analogy between the state of marketing today and the bloodletting and witch-doctoring that characterised medicine before scientific research established new norms. Arguing that marketing science shows law like patterns that should guide marketers he drew various conclusions, including that what is needed in branding is distinctiveness, rather than differentiation.
Is one really supposed to forget all about positioning and differentiation, which are such central components of strategy, in favour of distinctiveness, which he defines as looking like yourself?
How Do You Determine Your Brand Strategy?
I turned to many books in my attempt to find answers that would help me define brand strategy post Byron Sharp.
Michael Johnson whose background is in design captures the problem well in his book, Branding in Five and a Half Steps Published by Thames & Hudson; 01 Edition (29 Sept. 2016). This is what he says about brand strategy:
“Much of the language … is dense and impenetrable, and on behalf of my entire profession, I apologize.
I am constantly being asked the difference between a brand essence and a brand positioning, or how to differentiate a core truth from a core idea. Some people value their values most of all and attach behaviours and outcomes to them; others use values as quick check points but are far more concerned about their personality.
Confused? I don’t blame you.”
As I looked more into brand strategy, and specifically positioning and differentiation, I discovered that when there were relatively few major consumer brands, the primary task of marketing was to demonstrate a product’s unique selling points (USP), such as the reliability of a washing machine, or any other performance claim. With time these USPs were matched or exceeded by competitors offering me-too’ products. So, achieving relevant differentiation became the primary objective of brand strategy.
The problem with differentiation on its own is that, in a sea of competitive products, each differentiated in some small way, it becomes increasingly difficult for any individual product to stand out from the crowd. Hence the importance of combining differentiation with relevance, or what Byron sharp and Jenni Romaniuk call brand salience, which is the propensity of the brand to be noticed or come to mind in buying situations.
In stressing the importance of distinctiveness, which involves focusing on how your brand looks, feels, and presents itself and stands out from the crowd, Byron Sharp left a significant void in brand creation.
A concept his research highlights is category entry points. These refer to the reasons or occasions when a buyer considers buying a product or service from our category. The book suggests breaking it down into 5 categories:
- Why a buyer is looking to buy a product.
- When is the buyer looking to buy the product or service?
- Where is the buyer buying the product or service?
- With whom is the buyer when buying the product or service?
- With what is the buyer buying the product or service?
The approach to marketing is to understand the most common entry points for our product or service category and to increase our mental availability for as many buying situations as we can afford.
For example, Coca Cola might run an ad campaign talking about drinking Coke when you are at the beach. The goal is to make people think of buying a coke when they are at the beach – not just to have any drink, but to have Coke.
Marketing campaigns should focus on one category entry point at a time. Each new marketing campaign should focus on a different category entry point from earlier messages. Every campaign should be tied together so they build on each other. It must be clear that it is your brand that is being advertised (and not another brand or category entirely).
While Byron Sharp’s work provides some clues for how to replace differentiation with building brand saliency and distinctiveness it still leaves a huge void in how to address brand strategy.
He argues that by focusing on distinctiveness, a brand is focusing more on legally protected properties than on differentiation which cannot be legally protected. However, whether you use differentiation or not as a strategy, you will still have legally protected distinctive brand assets. The essence of branding is distinctiveness.
So this accent on distinctiveness is reminding people to do what they should have been doing anyway when creating brands, namely to create unique distinctive brand assets.
It’s true that you cannot legally protect your positioning, but if the market associates you with a particular position, then you will have entered the mind of the consumer for an association that drives home your brand promise. For example, until relatively recently Volvo’s positioning was Safety. They own safety because consumers associate them with safety. It is immaterial that they don’t own that concept legally. They can create a tagline or other brand assets to reinforce their positioning and legally protect those assets which would cement their positioning and provide some legal ownership of the concept.
This type of argument from Byron Sharp confused me because I wondered why it follows that if you focussed on positioning and differentiation you would not also have assets such as a logo, icon, and the like which you use consistently and protect.
Distinctive Brand Assets
Any brand needs to have and protect its distinctive brand assets, regardless whether its strategy relies on differentiation or distinctiveness. The brand equity it builds is contained in the name and distinctive brand assets.
Whether a brand is associated with a particular positioning or is simply focusing on distinctiveness does not alter the importance of having distinctive brand elements that stand out and are protectable and protected.
Many consumer decisions are made at the point of sale, where the brand name, logo, packaging and so on, will be physically present and visible. Being able to recognise the brand in such sales situations is very important. I can see that consumers are not focused on how one brand differs from another.
Byron Sharp’s finding that buyers do not spend a great deal of time comparing brands in a category when they are looking to buy a product, that they are not weighing up how one differs relative to another, and that they certainly do not fall in love with brands is very valuable to know so you can avoid focusing too much energy on the wrong factors during branding.
However, there are purchase situations when buyers need to actively seek your brand and therefore need to be able to retrieve it from memory when the need arises to buy the type of service you offer. It must help if you are associated in their memory in some way, possibly for your brand promise.
I agree that If you aim to get customers to fall in love with your brand, then Byron Sharp’s research should be enough to deter you because the number of purchases of brands like Harley Davidson and Apple, are no different to buyers of other brands, shooting down the widespread misconception that loyalty is the metric to try to create.
Given that buyers may not even notice your differentiation clearly the research indicates that if your brand has market recognition it may not be worth focusing too much attention on trying to differentiate. It makes sense to focus on distinctiveness.
Applicability To New Concepts
However, the more I’ve thought about it the more I’ve decided that the research is less relevant to small brands that are not already known in the market. After all the research studied brands that were already well known.
Smaller brands wanting to enter a market or to establish themselves and grow surely need to do more than create a distinctive brand (namely, one that looks like them). They surely need to position themselves too.
For example, if you are an electrician setting up in a part of the country that is well served by other electricians, looking uniquely like yourself so you stand out and are recognisable is all well and good. However, the problem is how to ensure people choose you instead of someone else.
If you can speak to a specific problem that you know customers have and which you are well placed to solve better than competitors whose websites you review are doing, then it stands to reason you would do well to position and differentiate yourself by reference to that type of work. You would surely attract more business than if you simply put your website out there and list all the services you offer.
The whole point of branding is to enable a brand to stand out, to not be perceived as a commodity. How else would you brand something like salt or bottled water if positioning and differentiation were disregarded?
Perhaps instead of differentiating against a competitor a good strategy is to take a stance against the status quo? I would love to know how others are addressing this issue of positioning and differentiation.
If you have a view on Byron Sharp’s ideas and would like to discuss it with me on my Brand Tuned podcast do get in touch at [email protected].