Being distinctive in marketing isn't about being different

Allie Johns, marketing consultant, explains why being distinctive isn’t about being different

From a very young age I’ve been fascinated by objects, animals and, people for that matter, that I think stand out. I prefer cats to dogs, Smythson to WH Smith, printed books rather than ebooks, a handwritten note to a text message.

Now that I’m all grown up, I’ve come to learn that I appreciate things in my personal and professional life because they are distinctive to me. Importantly, in a marketing context, this means I’m more likely to be persuaded by brands that stand out by virtue of their design and behaviour, their look, feel, sounds (and even smells), but not necessarily because I think they’re unique or particularly different.

The science

And I’m not alone in behaving this way. First researched back in 2007 at the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute of Marketing Science in Australia, the concept of distinctiveness emerged from a scientific study exploring the importance of perceived brand differentiation. Long story short, research across seven consumer brand sectors in Australia and 10 in the UK, found that unless there was a clear price and/or location difference, customers did not see the brand they were buying as differentiated from other, similar brands.

The researchers concluded, and I quote: ‘For a brand to be distinctive, it must make an instant and positive impact on consumers.’ To do this it must appear simple and intuitive, as well as easy for them to ‘notice, recognise, recall and, importantly, buy the brand.’ Trawling data is one way to try and understand what customers are doing on their buying journey. Another enlightening option is to embrace distinctiveness and understand why it’s important in branding. 

A distinctive brand reduces cognitive effort. Anything that makes our lives easier is a big point scorer, not least in our roles as buyers and influencers. Distinctiveness also matters because buying is an emotional process (especially if it’s on behalf of your employer). According to Bacon and Butler, for example, every buyer is influenced by emotional considerations, but the extent to which they can influence varies according to role, personal characteristics and level of involvement in the purchase decision. Simply put, this means you need to understand why your customers are persuaded to engage with you, as well as what they’re doing on your website.

The changing customer

And, as Will Green highlighted in the previous issue of B2B Marketing, the millennials have arrived. A study by Pew Social Trends in 2014 revealed that just 19 per cent of millennials felt they could trust others, meaning the evolution of the customer is such that authenticity and trustworthiness is likely to be of paramount importance to this generation.

The days of the customer as a passive receiver of images and information are well and truly over. We want to be ‘surprised and delighted’ by the brands we interact with. Increasingly we’re looking for brands to be more like us; that’s to say, brands that understand us, and what we want from them. That’s why embracing distinctiveness and its powers of persuasion should be on every 21st century marketing professional’s New Year’s resolution list.