A few weeks ago, we set out to bust a number of marketing myths. We’re now on the third of our five-part series, using hard science to set a few things straight (make sure to check out parts one and two). We’ve been drawing on Byron Sharp’s work at the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute to help explain how brands can grow to become market leaders. Our last post looked at brands’ customer bases and established mass marketing as an effective strategy for long-term brand growth. In this post, we’ll be breaking down the difference between differentiation and distinctiveness, and which of the two unlocks the potential for true brand innovation.


What is brand differentiation? For years, marketers have been told to differentiate themselves, lest their brand face eternal doom. Differentiation is the idea that there is a different perceived meaning behind every brand—the key here being perceived, whether or not the brand meaning is actually different. In other words, if consumers do not perceive a difference, it may as well not be there. Sharp explains differentiation as the “reason to buy” for the consumer. Academics have touted that brands will only succeed if their consumers perceive them as different from their competitors; however, research has shown that brand perception scores actually tend to be quite similar.

For example, consumers will likely rate companies A, B, and C similarly on attributes such as how trustworthy or efficient they are and their rapport or relevance. Not only that, but the attributes consumers associate with particular brands tend to overlap with those of other brands. In other words, category leaders aren’t associated with unique attributes: Lenovo stands just as much for “innovation” in consumers’ minds as Toshiba does.

This isn’t to say that there are no differences in perception. Obvious functional aspects of a brand are reflected in perception surveys: Chinese brands are perceived as Chinese, German brands as German, and luxury brands as luxury.

In 2012, a well-respected communications journal published a case study on a forestry service in the U.S., identifying a lack of brand differentiation as the reason for their demise. They wrote that the forestry brand “lacked differentiation from similar organizations,” with participants sometimes unable to distinguish between the organizations. Interestingly enough, the journal extended this finding to all public organizations, recommending that they must differentiate themselves accordingly in their spaces. This finding highlights the fact that the importance of differentiation is still a firmly-held—albeit mythical—belief.

We can see, then, that we have just stumbled upon the first marketing myth in this post. Top brands aren’t perceived as radically different. In fact, brand differentiation is consistently quite weak across the spectrum, regardless of size: consumers simply don’t perceive brands within a category as being particularly different.

This brings us to our first important conclusion: differentiation isn’t occurring at the brand level. Top brands have many competitors that look like them, and we already know that their customer bases look similar too. Brands shouldn’t pour money into appearing different, or creating a category apart from their competitors, as customers don’t need to see differentiation to buy into a brand. Consumers will continue to buy Coca-Cola, even if they don’t rate it as particularly different from Pepsi.


Enter distinctiveness, the true marketing aim. Distinctiveness is a brand’s ability to stand out so that buyers can easily identify it: “I know these sneakers with a swoosh are Nike, and these sneakers with three parallel bars are Adidas”. Sharp defines distinctiveness as a brand looking like itself. This characteristic is far more critical for brands than differentiation, as they need customers to quickly notice, recognize, and recall their brand over others. Not only this, but distinctiveness, or branding, is legally defensible. Branding can be trademarked, but points of differentiation cannot.

So how can a brand be distinctive? Distinctive elements show customers what brand something is. These can include colors, logos, taglines, symbols, celebrities, or even advertising styles. In defining these elements, brands can begin to craft a story around who they are, making sure this story resonates and lingers with their consumers.

These elements are critical, as they play to the neuroscience that helps construct and reinforce memories. As such, the repetitiveness and recognizability of these elements helps remove consumer cognitive burden. The more consumers can rely on an implicit reaction to a brand, the more likely they are to buy that brand.


In establishing their brand elements, brands should aim for uniqueness and prevalence. Uniqueness is the idea that customers don’t associate a brand’s assets with those of a competitor. A desire for uniqueness makes sense: if a brand element reminds a customer of a competitor more so than of your own brand, you’re driving that customer to your competitor. If a brand element is unique to your brand, every time a customer sees it, they can strengthen the memory structure linking that element to your brand, increasing likelihood of buying in the future. Uniqueness simply makes your brand more identifiable.

Prevalence, on the other hand, is the idea that the majority of customers link your brand to your brand element. For example, when customers see a “swoosh,” they know that that product belongs to Nike. And here’s another marketing myth: prevalence can’t be built overnight, or with one single instance. This element-to-brand link, which signals a brand to a consumer, is built through consistency over time. Nike’s “swoosh” appeared next to the word “Nike” for years before it was able to stand alone as a brand element.

When brands produce a consistent set of associations, they create an accessible impression in consumer memory. In other words, consumers can seamlessly strengthen the element-to-brand link in their mind, as they receive the same cues over and over again.

Uniqueness and prevalence together help establish brand distinctiveness. Distinctive brands, in turn, are thought of more often and are able to achieve greater market share. Ultimately, then, such positioning can help brands grow their customer bases in the long run. It’s important to re-emphasize here that customers cannot create strong brand associations overnight. That’s why brand consistency is so important: the most iconic brands in the world are such due to consistent and constant use of their distinctive brand elements, over many years. As such, brand growth is born out of a commitment to these elements.

In this post we’ve contrasted brand differentiation and distinctiveness, concluding that brands must establish distinct brand elements in order to win in the marketplace. Not only this, but brands must consistently and relentlessly uphold those brand elements over time, in order to create a retrievable impression in consumer’s memory. Of course, brands should continue to invest in a best-in-class product or service and strive for innovation in their field; but when it comes to external communications, brands must first focus on distinctiveness. Our next post will take a deep-dive into the world of advertising and price promotions. We’ll be discussing in what ways brands can advertise and which of those are most effective.


To learn more about how the world’s largest brands are building distinctive brand identities, join us for Transition in New York City on September 28.