Differentiation is acknowledged by most as the goal that every marketer should be seeking. But the enthusiasm for the pursuit masks a common misunderstanding – in the context of brand strategy, different and difference are not one and the same.
Every brand must continue to be different to survive. It must evolve just to tread water. Different is comparative. It’s the gap between how a brand has been seen and behaved and how it must behave and be understood going forward in order to remain relevant and interesting. Being different is welcomed by some and resisted by many. A brand that chooses to be different chooses to adjust on multiple levels and to varying degrees in response to what it perceives as market conditions. Those movements could be large or small; they could be remarked on widely or go unnoticed by most; they could be motivated by an impatience to stay put or a commitment to get somewhere.
Most brand strategy plots this shift. It rationalises and quantifies the extent to which a brand will need to alter in order to be a different brand than it was and different from those around it. Good brand strategy sets out the departure and final points and plots the reasons for and the nature of the brand journey. It should also map how the proposed change compares with what others are doing, and how and why the brand will be more different than its competitors after the journey than before it.
Difference is less easy to identify. It’s about what happens as a result of the changes. Difference quantifies where and why the brand is more competitive, how it is more attractive and to whom, how it is more valuable and the extent to which results can be attributed to organic forces (driven by being part of a growing sector) and specific nudges (generated by the changes you made to your brand). Or at least that’s what difference should identify. The problem is that most marketing teams still struggle to demonstrate, over time, the differences that changes to their brand achieve.
Brands lack impact frameworks
And one of the key reasons for that is that few brands have found practical ways to monitor and assess the impact of their different brand. Too often, they simply release that brand into the market and back it up with marcomms. What they don’t do is measure and articulate, even internally, what happened next. And they don’t put in place clear and practical measurement frameworks that provide them with response cues. So they don’t know when their brand is working harder as a result of the changes made and it takes them ages to work out if their shiny, different brand is failing to shift the dial.
That lack of correlation between what a brand does and what consumers (and organisational cultures) do in response means that far too much of the strategy and the management of brands remains guesswork. Companies make changes to their brands with good intention but sometimes without fully understanding why they are doing it, the targets they they are aiming at and therefore the difference they are aiming to achieve.
They seek to be different as a brand – and they believe that being different automatically makes them more interesting and more competitive. They may be right. They may not. What they lack is clear cause and effect.
One of the reasons for this of course is that business orthodoxy preaches to all of us that change is good and needed and that brands that don’t change are at risk of falling behind. I don’t disagree with that at all. What gets lost in translation however is that change for change’s sake is also a risk.
You can make change after change after change to a brand and it can all make no difference, if the change itself is ephemeral or just plain wrong.
As Gap and others quickly discovered, you can over-change a brand, for example, pushing it out of alignment with what consumers value or what the company itself can or should be doing. It’s not hard to be different. The judgment call comes in knowing precisely how different a brand needs to be at any given point in order to achieve its short and long-term goals. And, equally, in knowing what must remain constant and recognised in order for the brand to make the most of all the investment that has been put into it so far.
None of this is to suggest that brands should become formulae or algorithms. What it does suggest is that if CMOs want to continue to meaningfully evolve the brands in their care then they need to be able to show what difference each change investment will make, and where. If you make your brand dramatically different, what is the effect? If you pull back the degree of different, how does that affect the impact?
Agencies too need to find ways to show that the creative contributions they make to brands are worth the money needed to create them. They need to be able to better align the work they do to make a brand different with the return that the company reaps. Unless, and until, they can do that, there’s a very real risk that their work will continue to be less and less valued.
Rethinking why your brand must be different
Most marketers would claim that they spend their days looking to build and manage a distinctive, valuable and differentiated brand. But there’s some questions that continue to go unanswered:
- What are the specific market conditions that prompt change in your brand?
- How many levels of different do you need – from keep-up to leap ahead? (so that you know how much change you need to ask for at any given point in time)
- What must never change? (the constants that drive your brand codes)
- What measures have you put in place to assure yourself and others that you delivered the level of difference needed?
My own view is that most brands need to rethink how to be distinctive. The norm is to put the emphasis on being different with the expectation that will create difference of some sort. That’s how many brands look to manage the change they make. By overseeing how the change makes its way to market. But the process is much more powerful when it is reversed:
- What difference do we need to achieve at this point in time?
- How different will we need to become in order to make that happen?
Know the problem and therefore the real goal. Before you seek the change.