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Opinion: Does Being Different Matter Anymore?

Richard Colwell, CEO, Red C Research

While understanding your brand’s differentiation points is important, an understanding of the barriers to purchase in the so-called long-tail, should be a major focus for any brand looking to grow, writes Richard Colwell.

RED C team members are all entrenched in the Ehrenberg Bass theory of how brands grow and utilise their theory extensively to help advise brands from a research perspective.  We spend a lot of time helping brands to understand their key category entry points and measuring association on these rather than just spontaneous awareness; reviewing brand assets to understand which are distinctive and should be used at all costs to drive easy choices or analysing brand data by the long tail to develop key areas to grow light or lapsed users.

In other words, we are true believers in much of what the Ehrenberg Bass institute suggests.

So, what then of differentiation?  Despite being seen to be somewhat irrelevant by Byron Sharp, our analysis suggests there is still a place for understanding this aspect of your brand.

Once the key cornerstone of brand strategy and the marketing of brands, was that successful communication must say something “different” about the brand, to make it stand out from its competitors.  This is one of the key reasons why it is such a focus of a lot of brand tracking.  The theory being that if a brand differentiates from the competition, it gives consumers a reason to choose that brand over another.

There is much analysis now however, including Byron Sharp’s own work, that identifies the potential weaknesses in building a strategy around differentiated brand image.  The reason being that the evidence tends to suggest that when brand image scores are looked at more closely, they tend to map market share with very little if any real differentiation between brands in the same category.

This is certainly the view of Byron Sharp, who suggests that there is little value in tracking studies that focus on brand image as the nirvana for brand growth.  In the fantastic resource book “How not to plan”, he is quoted as saying “Rather than striving for meaningful perceived differentiation, marketeers should seek meaningless distinctiveness.”

Does this mean we should all stop measuring brand image then, and stop trying to differentiate?  Instead focusing all our attention on making brand choices easy by building widespread metal availability for brand, driving positive emotional connections among the mass market and being ruthlessly distinctive.

Sharp certainly ascertains that it is far more effective to have distinctive communication about a category benefit, than a bland piece of communication on a differentiated positioning.  Thus, for most brands time and money is probably more effectively spent being distinctive in both message and brand.

That doesn’t mean however, that if a brand has real differentiation from competitors it should just forget about it.  Quite the opposite.  The reality is that it’s really hard to differentiate from competitor brands in the same category.  Also, differentiation is often short lived, as competitors soon move to copy that quality.

That means it still remains important to understand if your brand does have any differentiating factors, and to make the most of them while you can.  That is certainly a view held by several clients, despite the fact that they are also often embedded in Ehrenberg Bass theory.

I was in a discussion this week with a major UK FMCG brand, helping them to try to formulate a new tracking programme that has Mental Availability, Category Entry Points and Distinctive Brand Assets as the core focus. Despite this focus by the brand on using Ehrenberg Bass theory at the heart of their growth strategy, there was a collective reluctance to completely lose all understanding of their brands possible differentiation.

The key reasons being that this knowledge helps brands to understand how best to target the long tail, and may well tip the balance to make the difference in the final call once you and a competitor both have the same mental availability and distinctiveness.  If brands do identify differentiation that bucks the trend, this can still have a significant impact on brand consideration.

Recent work we did with Peter Field (of Binet & Field fame) and the National Lottery in Ireland found that as shown by Byron Sharp, many brand image attributes are heavily influenced by participation.  However, at the same time it did uncover some attitudes that did not conform to this pattern and might therefore be indicative of attitudes that influence participation rather than vice versa. 

Crucial to the analysis on image / differentiation is to look at it through the lens of targeting the long tail for growth.  If we can examine the extent to which image and attitude ratings across buyer groups (e.g. heavy vs. long tail) differ from the expected levels dictated by their levels of purchase; and identify where the range of differences are widest, these are the issues that help to define why they are the ‘long tail’.

To this extent, while we concur that overall, it is far more important for brands to first focus on differentiating mass market messages. It is still valuable to understand a brands differentiation, but perhaps from a more nuanced view of seeking to establish the barriers to purchase among the long tail, that should be the focus for growth for any brand.

Richard Colwell is managing director of Red C Research

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