Distinctiveness is the New Differentiation

As consumer categories become increasingly crowded with new entrants, the battle for growth becomes more challenging. Many companies seek to stand out among the crowd by differentiating. While meaningful differentiation such as unique ingredients, favorable pricing, convenience benefits, or special capabilities can be helpful in attracting new customers, distinctiveness is often what keeps brands top of mind in buying situations.


Distinctiveness, defined as a brand’s identity and how it is recognized, can sometimes be more instrumental in vying for customers’ valuable mental attention than differentiation. Unlike differentiation, which helps a brand stand out among competitors with a unique selling proposition or superior offering, distinctive brands are highly recognized on their own, regardless of the offerings. Pursuing distinctiveness widens reach across potential buyers by broadly claiming mental real estate for easy brand recall and recognition during buying occasions.


There is ample evidence to support the powerful impact of distinctive brand assets (DBAs), including foundational work done by researchers at the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute for Marketing Science. A recent Ebiquity study found that brand ad campaigns using salient DBAs achieved 62% higher ROI over average market returns. With so much riding on the outcome of strategic branding, we recommend four ways to upgrade your branding effort to include both differentiation and distinctiveness for more powerful results:


1. Create meaningful brand strategy and differentiation

The importance of distinctiveness does not mean that differentiation is defunct. Far from it. Strategic and meaningful differentiation is still a cornerstone of successful brand building and a critical step. Your brand strategy effort should include creating a positioning that leverages opportunity space and resonates with buyers. Positioning defines what the brand stands for in the minds of consumers…and how it is really different versus competitors. How is it special? What specific functional and emotional benefits does it provide? Positioning is the “master strategy” that drives all the rest of the organization’s activities and marketing, so it needs to be clear, directive, and believable. Weak or fluffy (meaningless) positioning is less effective in today's competitive and disruptive market.


2. Ground brand element design in your (differentiating) brand strategy

This step starts with developing a brand identity design brief, based on the brand strategy / positioning, to act as your north star for developing a range of elements. When brand strategy (new or revamped) grounds and informs the development of brand assets, linking strategy to the execution, a strong brand identity emerges. This is a very powerful way to build both differentiated and distinctive brands. Your brand's identity is its unique look, feel, mark, words, or combination that creates its image, drives awareness, and makes it memorable and distinctive from competition.


Red Bull is an example of a brand that has created a differentiated and distinctive presence by marrying its strategy with a range of identity elements. The brand's tagline, logo, and other elements reflect the positioning while being memorable and distinctive on their own.


3. Evaluate and validate (current or new) brand identity elements for distinctiveness

Brand identity elements (logo, color palettes, typography styles, advertising style, etc.) can be quantitatively assessed for distinctiveness.


There are numerous methods to do this work, including the Distinctive Asset Grid, a tool developed by Jenni Romaniuk at the Ehrenberg Bass Institute. This approach measures the fame – consumers knowledge that the element represents the brand – against the uniqueness – consumers linking the element only to the brand in question.

Elements scoring high in both fame and uniqueness measures can be considered distinctive assets, while lower scoring elements will require more intentional use to build up these measures. Other than the influence of price, a consumer’s decision on which brand to purchase often comes down to what is familiar and recognizable.


As explained in depth by psychologist and economist Daniel Kahneman in his thought-provoking book, Thinking Fast and Slow, the judgments that lead to this decision happen primarily at an unconscious, automatic part of the mind that favors the well-known over the unfamiliar. For this reason, it is often distinctive brand assets – brand identity elements that have high fame and uniqueness – that help consumers pick one brand over another.


4. Be consistent…now and over time


Brand identity is a representation that helps people connect it to a product, service or company. Once you have a brand identity and key elements that make sense for your brand strategy, it is essential that they be used consistently. This is integral to building awareness and a positive relationship with the consumer. It is critical to establish and codify brand identity throughout your organization so it can be used consistently across all elements of communication/marketing. Regular use of these distinctive brand assets in marketing efforts not only aids in recall of the brand, it also integrates seemingly disparate touchpoints of a brands’ reach. Frequent use of a consistent set of brand elements (not reinventing the wheel too often) is also important to building fame and uniqueness measures of your assets.


One market example of a brand that has consistently utilized distinctive elements is Spotify, which has established top-of-mind awareness with its green circle and sound wave logo. The original logo featured the Spotify brand name, but the addition of the sound wave symbol, used consistently and intentionally over time, has allowed Spotify to elevate its awareness and recognition. It is synonymous with audio streaming and is supported with other communication pieces that reflect its evolution from a technology company to an entertainment hub.



Many brands with great products and offerings have not been able to reach their full potential for lack of a comprehensive brand strategy and brand identity effort. At GrowthWorks, we work to provide you with sustaining, long-term brand strategy and design solutions that make it easy to blend meaningful differentiation and distinctiveness for brands consumers can’t help but to remember.