The ultimate goal of any brand effort is differentiation.  Setting your product apart from its competitors is an essential first step toward creating preference and loyalty.  According to research firm, Millward Brown, “brands that are perceived as being different have a much higher potential for growth than do other brands.”  Consequently, identifying and communicating meaningful points of difference has become the focus of much strategic branding work.

Yet we wonder if consumers are listening? Do they even care about our carefully crafted ‘points of difference’ and ‘reasons to believe’?   In her book, Different:  Escaping the Competitive Herd, Harvard professor Youngme Moon, observes corporations have become experts at “augmentation and replication” but aren’t that good at creating meaningful differences:

“If aliens were to visit a grocery store or a drugstore in this country they would have to conclude that we are a people hooked on the pleasures of picking needles out of haystacks.”

The Case of Diamond Shreddies

diamond-shreddies.pngIn 2006, a clever Canadian campaign for “New Diamond Shreddies” turned the mirror back on marketers’ often inane attempts at creating differences.  The joke is that the only difference is that the shape is no longer a square, it is a “diamond” (“kind of like the difference between a 6 and a 9”) and therefore tastes better.  The satire is carried off brilliantly with focus group testimonials and commercials touting the advantages of a diamond shape over a square.

Urban legend says this campaign was created by an intern at Ogilvy.  If that is true, it’s a case of the newbie pointing out the emperor’s lack of clothes.  How many of us are guilty of seizing upon some meaningless but exclusive product point of difference as the supposed basis of brand preference?

My job as a qualitative researcher requires that I spend a lot of time talking to consumers about what really matters to them when making purchase decisions.  What I’ve learned is that there are many “flavors” of relevance, but they rarely have to do with product attributes.

Here are just three types of relevance that may challenge you to rethink how you differentiate your brand.

1.       Brand Relevance

In his latest book, Brand Relevance:  Making Competitors Irrelevant, brand strategy guru David Aaker writes:

“The classic brand preference model is an increasingly difficult path to success in today’s dynamic market because customers are not inclined or motivated to change brand loyalties. Brands are perceived to be similar at least with respect to the delivery of functional benefits, and often these perceptions are accurate.  Why rethink a product and brand decision that has worked when alternatives are similar? Why go to the trouble to even locate alternatives? Seeking alternatives is a mental and behavior effort with little perceived payoff. Further people prefer the familiar, whether in regard to a route to work, music, people, nonsense words, or brands.”

Of course, if you are the incumbent brand, this is good news. But for brands trying to disrupt entrenched beliefs and behaviors, inertia presents a major challenge.  According to Aaker, the answer is not introducing yet another marginal improvement but changing the frame of reference by creating whole new categories or subcategories that redefine the market so as to make competitors less relevant and to cause consumers to rethink their decisions.  Aaker points to minivans, beer, and computers as examples of places where subcategory dynamics have driven brand growth.

Today there are a host of trends that can provide the impetus for category and subcategory innovation. They include the green movement, the emergence of new knowledge centers, ethnic foods and flavors, new design aesthetics, and a desire for greater control over one’s time and personal health.

Challenge:  To gain relevance, identify trends that can be leveraged to help your brand define a new category or subcategory and own that new frame of reference.

2.       Category Relevance

Not surprisingly, most consumers don’t really care if a brand works 21% rather than 35% better, or even if it works better at all.  What they often want to know is why they should purchase the product in the first place.  Yet, many brand strategies assume category benefits are understood.  In fact, the customer-perceived competitive set is often much broader than marketers think.  When making purchase decisions, many customers consider what may seem like “indirect competition.”   They ask themselves: should I buy juice or a soft drink?  A vacation or an appliance?  Should I buy a new car, computer, or cell phone at all or just keep mine going another year?   What would be more enjoyable, an evening at a casino or theatre tickets?

Establishing category relevance requires understanding the decision context and laddering up to the category benefit.  Some of the most powerful brands are built on ideas that many brand strategists would dismiss as ‘generic’ – like friendly skies (United), the rewards of consumption (MasterCard), or feeling beautiful (Dove).  Decision context acknowledges larger issues than simply which brand to buy. Things like:  what am I trying to accomplish?  And how does this decision take me to a better place in my day or my life?

Homemade  Pizza, which is part of the fast growing ‘take and bake’ pizza restaurant segment, is an example of a brand that has created category relevance.  Rather than explain why it is better than other takeout pizza brands, Homemade Pizza positions itself as a better alternative to a home cooked meal.

“We’re in the business of helping hungry people prepare fresh, easy, and delicious dinners at home. We always have been. We seem to have this nagging urge to bring everyone together for good food at the best place in town:  home.

Similarly, V8 is seen as unique among juices because it can replace a serving of vegetables –it’s a ‘salad in a glass’ that satisfies hunger, not just thirst.

Challenge:  Many brands have an opportunity to create relevance by leveraging category appeal in a new or interesting way.  Consider whether you have defined your competitive set too narrowly and explore ways to reframe to enhance your relative appeal.

3.       Cultural Relevance

Millward Brown concedes that “being ‘different’ is not necessarily all about functional product benefits. Even the most generic products can make themselves different through creatively connecting with consumers.” Increasingly,  that connection comes through a shared sense of cultural relevance, the intangible sense that a brand is ‘hot’ or especially in tune with the prevailing cultural ideology.  Let’s face it, some brands are cooler than others and not just because they happen to be featured on the cool shows or have the coolest celebrity endorsements.  These brands — Starbucks, Nike, Patagonia, Vitamin Water and Innocent (U.K.), to name a few — are cultural innovators that resonate with what consumers care about today – community, sustainability, healthy living.

In his book, Cultural Strategy:  Using Innovative Ideologies to Build Breakthrough Brands, Oxford professor Doug Holt advocates a theory of cultural relevance.  He explains that the traditional approach to differentiation is based on the notion that brands succeed by “colonizing” cognitive territory in consumers’ minds (i.e., “positioning”). The problem with this approach is that finding and staking a claim to a gap not exploited by other brands is exceedingly difficult to do, even when a brand has a functional advantage.  It is even harder to sustain over time, as any truly improved performance is likely to be “summarily copied by competitors,” initiating the slugfest Youngme Moon described above.

Holt analyzed more than two dozen brands that differentiated based on cultural innovation to explain why these brands succeeded. He concludes that hot brands are the first to express a new ideology or to express an existing one in a way that shakes up the conventions of the category and prods consumers to seek out new alternatives.  It’s about catching the cultural wave, specific to a historical moment and particular group of people.  Far from being a haphazard or serendipitous event, cultural innovation can be strategically planned and implemented.  One particularly encouraging aspect of this approach to differentiation is that it is additive – even brands with better mousetraps can take advantage of cultural innovation to establish enduring differentiation.  Would Nike be as powerful as it is today if it had simply rested on better performance?  Or Ben and Jerry’s on quirky flavors and its regional heritage?

Brands that become part of the cultural conversation are by definition “different” and offer something more than what is inherent in the product or service.

Challenge:  Discover the ideologies in the culture that are speaking in a meaningful way to your customers and explore how you can harness them to distinguish your brand.