Chap 8 Differentiation VS Distinctiveness

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These posts are a collection of notes and summaries from the book “How Brands Grow: What marketers don’t know” by professor Byron Sharp. This work is a must read for any marketer. My personal goal when I embarked on this series of posts was to get a deeper understanding of the book and its lessons, and as I have worked through them I have not only gained that understanding, but also an idea of the areas I need to investigate more deeply in the future. Sharp is always very insightful, but I feel the need for more perspectives on many of the topics he covers. You can buy How Brands Grow here.

In marketing there are two terms that differ profoundly, not only semantically but also practically:

  • Differentiation 
  • Distinctiveness 
Thank Olga for this wonderful picture

Chapter eight of “How brands grow” describes the difference between the two terms with practical examples, in particular why the first one is overrated and why the second is so important.  

Just to start giving a bit of context we can define “differentiation” as the attribute of a brand to be different from others for some specific qualities, something that makes the brand unique and incomparable.

Differentiation: the attribute of a brand to be different from others for some specific qualities, something that makes the brand unique and incomparable.

While on the other hand distinctiveness is the attribute of a brand to be easily recognizable among others for some specific qualities.

Distinctiveness: is the attribute of a brand to be easily recognizable among others for some specific qualities.

By the end of this post, I will have shown the importance of this distinction. 

Market perception is a critical aspect usually measured for practical reasons. 

For example, are the customers aware of opening times of restaurant chains on Saturday, or is any vegan option available? 

These examples are very tangible. 

What can happen sometimes is to try to measure more “esoteric” perception, quoting the book “like whether consumers imbue the brand with human personality traits”. 

These measures are highly subjective, but are also the best-seller of lots of marketing consultancies

One of the first pitfalls of conducting research into esoteric factors like these is failing to take into account sample size and company size

Bigger brands definitely have more customers and consequently more respondents that screw up the output of the analysis. 

Not only, as we saw in the previous post, customers are usually slightly more loyal with bigger brands.

In relation to this, the author describes the output of a survey where it was asked if there was any association between some attributes and a brand. 

The brands were ordered based on familiarity, but sadly here the definition of familiarity is not provided.

Despite this missing definition, I found an interesting paper from 1987, the link is attached in the footnotes.

Familiarity is defined as the number of product-related experiences that have been accumulated by the consumer

(I need to investigate more to understand how it is measured, I am still an engineer)

Some of the evaluated attributes were the following: 

  • Trusted 
  • Efficient
  • Rapport 
  • Relevant 
  • Solution 
  • Innovative 
  • Essential

Again, the author doesn’t go deeper explaining the meaning of them, if the readers want to investigate there is the reference to the full paper. 

Obviously it is also not the goal of the author to explain them. What Sharp wants to highlight are two main patterns:

  1. “Some attributes always score higher than others.” (Trusted VS Essential) 
  2. “All brands gain very similar scores with a slight double jeopardy law sub-pattern (i.e. smaller brands score slightly lower)

To avoid any misunderstanding brands can be perceived differently to their rival brands, but this difference is usually based on functional aspects. 

According to the author the importance of perceptual surveys is to ensure their advertising is truly branded.  

In the previous chapter we also described the research by Franklin Evans in 1959 where he proved no correlation between buyer’s personality and their brand choice. 

Despite this, some marketers still try to find and measure “exotic image attributes” like “brand personality”. 

Based on the book, what research shows is that also personality perception, like all other image attributes, scores very poorly.

What about the “uniqueness” attribute for a brand?

This is another aspect of differentiation that has been analysed in Sharp’s work.

Briefly if a brand is truly different we should expect that is unique in its genre, instead we see two key phenomenons:

  • Successful brands do not have proportionally unique association
  • Customers with greater preference for a brand doesn’t hold more unique associations than those with less preference

What is true, and probably more important for the tech sector, is related to competition:

The more a brand is perceived as unique, the less competitors are on the market. 

The previous fact is quite obvious.


Well, one thing is to try to define a product unique through advertising and positioning, another thing is to make the product unique through bold innovation developing a new technology or an innovative service.

Continuing our discussion on differentiation now is the turn of “Meaningful differentiation” another word frequently used in marketing.

Philip Kotler has defined differentiation as “the act of designing a set of meaningful differences to distinguish the company’s offering from competitors’ offerings.

Based on Kotler is the perceived difference that provides the buyers their reason to purchase and be loyal to a brand (Aaker, 2001; Kotler 1994).

This stress on differentiation raises three important questions where, actually, the answer is “NO, there is scant evidence”:

  • “How different are brands perceived to be?
  • Do buyers need to perceive a meaningful difference to repeatedly buy a brand?
  • Are some brands far more differentiated than their rivals? Does this mean their buyers are more loyal? Are these brands more profitable? Are they growing faster?”

Be aware that the author hardly believes in the EXISTENCE of differentiation.

Brands are not commodities, starting from the name. 

But as I anticipated before is mainly a factual differentiation in opposition of a branded differentiation:

  • I know the location of the restaurant
  • This specific shop has my favourite shoes 
  • I would like an ice cream now instead of a pizza
  • Pictures are incredibly better with this smartphone 

Obviously this affects all brands, there is also a differentiation on brand level?

Yes but this is still true on key vertical aspects like price and quality: luxury cars are bought by wealthy people. 

Again, across their competitive set, brands’ user bases are similar.

One of the key phrases that I want to quote here from the author that really impressed me is:

“If brands vary in their degree of differentiation, we might expect to see them exhibit different price elasticities, as customers of more differentiated brands would be less sensitive to price”. 

What truly happens is that price elasticities tend to vary more with the context of the price change. 

Said that on differentiation, supported by the research of Ehrenberg, Barnand & Scriven in 1997 but also from Romaniuk in 2004, the author gives a special attention to salience and awareness in the buyer behaviour. 

Now is the turn of “distinctiveness” that we anticipated at the beginning of this post.

If a brand wants to increase buying propensity it must stand out.

Some distinctive elements should be very immediate and consistent: 

  • Colours 
  • Logos 
  • Taglines 
  • Symbols/Mascott
  • Celebrities 
  • Advertising Style 

Why this attribute is so important for a brand is easily explained:

Distinctiveness reduces the need to think. 

Thanks Daniel for the photo!

When a brand has strong distinctive assets it is easier to trigger the consumer behaviour because the number of stimuli is higher and they are well associated.

It requires time, budget and consistency to build assets in the consumer minds.

At the time that I am writing this post I am following with a lot of interest the split “Hugo Boss” decided. 

Basically the brand is now split into two brands. On a first glance  one is a premium price and the other more affordable. 

They are massively investing in ads on YouTube and other channels to build this new picture in the consumer mind. 

Will it work? I don’t know, I am very curious about it and trying to be updated on their marketing activities.

This one was probably one of the most interesting chapters, I really enjoyed and has practical involvement in my daily work. 

Additional Readings

Romaniuk, Jenni & Sharp, Byron 2004b, ‘Conceptualizing and measuring
brand salience’, Marketing Theory, vol. 4, no. 4, pp. 327-42.

Collins, Martin 2002, ‘Analyzing brand image data’, Marketing Research,
vol. 14, pp. 33-6.

Evans, F 1959, ‘Psychological and objective factors in the prediction of brand
choice Ford versus Chevrolet’, The Journal of Business, vol. 32, pp. 340-69

I used these papers to get an academic definition of familiarity:

  1. “Competitive Interference Effects in Consumer Memory for Advertising: The Role of Brand Familiarity”
  2. “Dimensions of Consumer Expertise” Joseph W. Alba, J. Wesley Hutchinson

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