All branding strategies and marketing plans, whether they are for a product, a service, a start-up or an individual, espouse the benefits of differentiation in order to capture new customer segments, make them stand-out, justify higher prices, leave a lasting impression, etc.
Differentiation: the original linchpin of the brand
The concept of the Unique Selling Proposition (USP) was first proposed in the 1940s by the advertising executive Rosser Reeves (“Reality in Advertising“). His idea was to associate a tangible and memorable benefit to a product to facilitate its sale. For example : Palmolive is soft on hands; There’s no clean like Mr. Clean…
This was followed by brand positioning, popularized by Ries and Trout (“Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind“) in the 1980s. They advanced the notion of differentiation (“Differentiate Or Die: Survival in our Era of Killer Competition“) as a way to stand-out in the mind of the consumer by distinguishing the brand from the industry leader: Apple, Think Different; Avis, We Try Harder.
Brands then moved into exploring multiple ways to establish their singularity: tone of voice, universes, social causes, emotions (“Lovemarks: The Future Beyond Brands“, Kevin Roberts)… All brands aiming for the ultimate uniqueness.
As “Difference” gradually became an absolute, marketing established the brand essence, phasing out the competitive landscape. The difference is now an intrinsic characteristic of the brand, rather than being what sets it apart from others. Brands are claiming to be different without identifying “from what”.
Joy is BMW, Nespresso is George Clooney… The difference locks in the identity, the Milka cow being purple, without remembering why (“Purple Cow“, Seth Godin). Brands sell their promises and overconfidently communicate their promises inside-out. And as the brand offer expands the actual differentiation between products is reduced, and its credibility erodes.
Targeting the mind of the customer through communication is no longer sufficient, the focus now needs to turn to the product or service experience.
And so, the MVP (Minimum Value Proposition) has now replaced the USP. Designating utility to the product or service, and a quest for usable prototypes has become more of a priority than crafting big advertising. The resolute focus on the “customer experience” reveals another type of difference, one that must be felt, be experienced and, not just be a claim.
The basics of designing a working difference
To better understand “why” a difference affects consumer behavior, we need to stop considering the brand uniquely from the advertiser’s point-of-view. Because way before marketing used the brand commercially, consumers identified the value of a product or service by its mark: brands help them make faster and easier choices.
A difference can’t just be declared, it exists only if it is perceived by the consumer in his environment. And it will not be noticed unless it is useful. A difference that has no identifiable advantage lacks relevance, and without a specific use, the brand’s raison d’être will collapse. As Byron Sharp puts it, (“How Brands Grow: What Marketers Don’t Know“), it is more important to be noticed than to be different.
At BVA, we believe that to renew the usefulness of brands and reinforce their singularity in environments undergoing profound change, we need to go back to basics and start by understanding how consumers interpret this environment. Because, to steer their choices, it is fundamental to understand their decision heuristics.
Furthermore, in order to help brands adopt a client’s point of view beyond empathetic encounters, we have chosen to use science: behavioral economics, social psychology, neuroscience, ethnography…
These scientific disciplines are all sources of insight allowing us to better understand people and their perception biases and to help reveal what actually governs behavior rather than relying on declaratives.
Inspiration comes from the gap between the customer’s vision and that of the brand
In moving the focus away from the brand’s point-of-view to that of the customer, one must consider words carefully. The word « difference », for example, can be quite contextual. What it is defining depends on who is using it – is it the one perceived by the marketeers or the one perceived by the consumer (a notion I developed in “Marque et consommateur, le divorce“). In our methods, we explore “customer centric” concepts and metrics instead of “brand centric” ones (measuring customer experience, performing mix tests in context, tracking customer journeys, ethnographic explorations, design thinking, Nudge…). This way we avoid the pitfall of favoring ideas that would err on the side of “brand intent”.
Here are some of the concepts at the roots of a brand’s performance:
Salience: It defines the ability of a product or service to capture the attention of the consumer. Salience (not the difference) is a word that is defined uniquely from the context and point-of-view of the consumer. By decoding the consumers attention filters in situ (web navigation, in store journeys…), brands can then identify new ways to emerge using minimal effort.
Memory anchors: Before brands look for a difference, we invite them to first identify their similarities: the implicit cues telling consumers that these brands belong to the same range of solutions. Because brands need anchors to drive spontaneous memory associations that will bring -or not- the brand into the future consumer’s repertoire. From there, it is the indistinctive experience (with the product/service) that will drive memorization, and not just the communication.
The relative advantage: Our brains are better at evaluating propositions in relative terms, than absolute ones, thus it is the « relative » advantage that is provided compared with other options that counts, more than the actual promise itself. Researching the customer’s life helps to reveal the strengths to be played to when comparing with alternative uses or market standards, without trying to outbid direct competition.
Thus, the two viewpoints (brand/customer) build on each other more than they oppose one another. And this double-entry approach, focused on the analysis of the tension between what is communicated (by brand) and what is experienced (by customer), render viable the ideas of differentiation after users testing a few prototypes in context. Because after all, what is important to a business in the long run is that the unique customer experience is at the level of the brand “Value Proposition”.