The Generic Problem of Brand Differentiation

In Strategy on March 19, 2012 by Jox Tagged: , , , , , ,

These days, there aren’t just a clutter of products but also heaps of promises that any consumer would skip through in ads, in supermarkets, or even in an activation.

At the end of the day, when a brand fails to distinguish itself from others, they’re all the same products in the eyes of the consumer. “Same banana”, they say. When there are too many players in the market especially in the consumer goods industry, brands may resort to price wars, value packaging, or just outspend each other to get higher shares of voice. Anything, to get the attention of the consumer. There is indeed a narrow line among hyper-similar products that often resort to generic promises or brand tactics.

Of course, we do not stop at mediocrity and just settle on outvoicing competitors. Somehow, there is a constant search for a key differentiator that speaks for itself and is organically translatable to creative strategies and tactical executions.

Based on my experiences and observations, key propositions can be derived from different sources:

1. It can be a product given that has never been highlighted before. An example is Omega-3 fatty acids claimed by a canned tuna brand. Fish is already rich in Omega-3, a nutrient that reduces risk of heart disease. Yet if a brand is the first to highlight such nutrient, the benefits are reaped by it. Why highlight it just now? It’s because health is highly relevant among consumers nowadays. Brand differentiation evolves through time and consumer needs at that time. 

2. Innovation can create product features that the brand can own first in the market or the brand can own solely. Constant innovation is a must especially for growth companies. Innovation is not juts triggered by streamlining and cost-efficiency goals but also by consumer insight. Product recipes or formulations may add benefits that once communicated, ring directly back to consumer demand. For example, the reduction or elimination of preservatives and/or incorporation of nutrients of a processed food product can get the attention of skeptic mothers who want their kids to eat healthy. If a particular brand owns it first, then it alters the entire processed foods category. And if its the only brand that can make such claim (because the innovation is patented or can’t be replicated), then it has an advantage over the others.

3. A differentiator can be derived from emotional affinities and social elements.  I think products such as shampoos, soaps, and laundry soaps have tapped into consumer desires. They have gone beyond hygienic needs. Vanity, care, seduction, every possible sweet spot has been explored. Here’s a classic: non-smear lipstick. Revlon out campaigned Hazel Bishop’s non-smear long-lasting lipstick when it launched the Fire & Ice campaign. The marketing strategy appealed to the naughty & nice sides of women. Being first in innovation is big news but it may not be big enough for long. The proposition must be sustainable and should not rest on a product feature that will possibly become obsolete.

There are certainly different thought processes in arriving at a great proposition. The problem, however, is not having information but having too much of it. The Heath Brothers, authors of SWITCH, remind us on the dangers of information that are true but useless.

It is not easy but one indicator that all parties have temporarily given up on a brand is when they float among tactical moves for quite some time.


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