Do people purchase from brands & firms because they have strongly held opinions about those brands or do they purchase because that brand was the one they recognised and felt safe enough to choose at that moment?

To put it another way, should marketers focus on differentiation or distinctiveness?

What's the difference?

Differentiation is setting your brand apart from the competition. A differentiated brand might focus on what the brand stands for, building associations with ideas like freedom, rebelliousness, success or anything the brand likes. A good example of these would be Harley Davidson.

Distinctiveness is standing out with impact. A distinctive brand, rather than looking to associate with anything else tries to look like itself, develos and leverages strong brand assets like logos, colors, sounds, ambassadors, tag lines etc.

We can see this at play in two different campaigns by Apple.

The Mac vs PC ads positioned Apple as the hip, young, energetic brand against the PC's stuffy, boring persona. This is a great example of differentiation.

By contrast, iPod ads, use bold colours, the classic white iPod and headphones and a healthy serving of popular music to create a distinctive look that is immediately recognisable as the iPod brand.

Why does it matter?

Distinctiveness vs differentiation might seem like a minor issue, but the implications for marketers are important. As a developing discipline, this is one of the key marketing debates of the last decade.

The importance of distinctiveness vs differentiation permeates strategy at the highest level down to every facet of marketing execution. This challenge impacts how your firm should be trying to grow market share but also how it should design ads and write copy.

A firm that prioritises differentiation might grow into a new market by considering its values, aligning those with that of the client and promoting this alignment in its advertising materials.

In contrast, a firm prioritising distinctiveness will audit it's brand assets, develop the most impactful and distinctive brand possible, and lean heavily on these assets in their advertising creative and marketing collateral.

These are two very different approaches and will have very different outcomes, understanding differentiation vs distinctiveness is key for formulating and executing marketing strategy.

What matters more?

Up until the last few years the balance of opinion in marketing saw differentiation as the most critical function of marketing. What your brand stood for and how it was different to the competition was so important, it saw multiple marketing theorists adopt the phrase "differentiate or die".

That consensus has been challenged by thinkers like Byron Sharp, who, along with Jenni Romaniuk & Andrew Ehrenberg analysed the brand perceptions of thousands of people. Their conclusion and the conclusion of others running similar studies, has been that differentiation may be less critical than we think. Indeed, Sharp and his colleagues found that differentiation was not necessary for purchase.

The importance of distinctiveness has been shown time and time again in studies on memory and retention. Your average client in the market is not paying much attention to your marketing - using distinctive brand assets is crucial to developing and reinforcing those memory structures.

What does this mean for professional services?

The rising importance of distinctiveness in marketing consciousness is great news for professional services. In a category where it is difficult to be meaningfully different from the competition, being distinctive is a more attainable goal.

At a more functional level, this means that professional services firms should take greater care to understand and develop assets like brand names, logos, colours, imagery, sounds & spokespeople. 

It is arguably more important to consider how and where these assets are used than to conceive new creative for your medium such as images or video. As much care as possible should be taken to ensure that brand assets are used widely and impactfully.