What it says on the tin
Everybody knows that your brand must be different from the competitors and that your advertising must stand out to be noticed. Everybody knows it, yet why do most brands and ads look and feel so damn similar?
The ideas of positioning and differentiation have been spoon-fed marketers from Marketing 101 and non-stop ever after and is subsequently an integral part of every strategy process. We all want to stand out, to be unique and to get some of the scarce resource that is attention. Attention smells like success. Unfortunately, there is an equally strong smell pulling us in the opposite direction, and that is fear. Being different means taking risk, and human beings – the marketing kind in particular – are terrified of taking risk.
So we bend the rules a little, and allow our dissonance – in this case the gap between risk aversion and the desire to play by the rules – to redefine the concept of differentiation by manipulating the scale of difference.
A strategy project is confined to what resembles a lab-environment – the office. All thinking and meeting activity takes place within office walls, thoughts are expressed on a computer screen, inspired by findings from the most artificial environment of them all; focus groups.
And this severely limited frame of reference means we zoom in on a very limited number of all of the things that influence how our work is ultimately perceived out there in the real world.
For example, we attribute too much importance to the category in question. We may analyse our category and competitor ads and messages to death, but we fail to analyse the society where these ads are to exert influence. We fail to consider the 3,000 (or was it 30,000?) other messages that compete for our attention every day. Just because we live and breathe a product and its category doesn’t mean everyone else do.
Imagine the category map, where a brand and its competitors are plotted along the sliding scales of the two key drivers of the category, represented by the X and Y axis. So far, so good. A couple of logos in each of the four corners – the four extremes – with some white space around our own brand; or perhaps a nearby white patch representing the promised land, to which only a brilliant strategy will grant us access and forever separate us from our competitors. Branding nirvana.
So what’s the problem? Because we’re so close to the task at hand, our nose is all but physically touching the spot marking the brief encounter between the X and Y axis, we fail to notice the vast areas of uninhabited land that exist outside the borders of our map. The great unknown unknown. That’s the real world, and for those who live there this extended map looks the same size that the original map looks to marketers. To these people, our brand, together with all our competitors, look the same. Like a close-knit group of little ants. It doesn’t matter to them if one brand uses the word ‘pure’ instead of ‘clean’. Or that one talks to pet-passionates instead of mere pet-lovers. Or promise a combination of great prices and great service, rather than just focus on one of them. And so it goes…
Difference is relative, and to be perceived as different to customers who have other things on their minds than the finer points of brand strategies, we better expand the scale to fit their reality, and consider our brand in relation to all other products and all other ads and everything else that’s out there.
First when we realise that our calls for attention are inaudible whispers to most people can we see how bold and brave brands must be in order to be heard. And that means challenging conventions; stop talking about yourself and instead seek to connect with people on a meaningful level.
The world of many marketers is still flat and inhabited by illusions of better mousetraps and arbitrary emotional territories. Only the brave minority dares venture beyond the borders of their category, and write their own laws by tapping into the vast human and cultural resources that exists out there in the real world.