A generation ago, it was critical to use marketing to communicate differentiation. Rosser Reeves developed the “Unique Selling Proposition” in the 1950s and Trout and Ries created “Positioning.” In the “Mad Men” days of advertising, product or brand differentiation was critical. Why is it less so now?

The Rise of Differentiation

Media had long been a hit or miss skill before the 1930s. But it became far more data driven from then through the days of TV. While you could not know for sure how an ad would work, you could predict remarkably accurately how many and who would see any given ad. Given this precision and the relatively low advertising “clutter” of the day, it was essential to make the ad effective.

So much thought went into understanding how advertising worked. While there were many formulations of this, differentiating your product or service from the competition in a relevant and meaningful way was essential. Often companies made it up or took creative license.

The Challenge to Differentiation

In the past decade, media has become far more complex and ad clutter has exploded. Thus getting exposure to an advertisement or promotion has become far more uncertain. Getting noticed has become the key element in an advertisement. This means that creativity has become more focused on being amusing, entertaining, or spectacular.

As a result of this, differentiation has been sacrificed for salience. If all the products in your category are having difficulty breaking through to the target market, then what you say is less important and differentiation may not always matter. While this may not be the result of a deliberate thought process but more of an implicit response, the pendulum may have swung too far.

The Future of Differentiation

Undifferentiated products become commodity products, and there is huge danger in ignoring differentiation. The most successful products of the future will be the ones that communicate their distinctiveness.