“Differentiate or die.”
Everyone who owns a business has heard this warning. In order for your business to survive, let alone thrive, you need to stand for and offer something different.
Brand can be both a source for and a result of differentiation. When I worked at Clorox, in some cases, as with Clorox Bleach, brand was even the primary differentiator among largely similar household products. It was good for our brand position to push away hard from the rest of the category.
But what if you are not in a mature category like household cleaning? What if you are a start-up, or a business with low awareness, or a business disrupting an old category to create a new one? These businesses are usually not short on differentiation. They are short on familiarity. Without a familiar anchor, your offering won’t feel relevant to people, and so they won’t know how to process what you’re offering.
So, when you think about your brand, you should be trying to strike a balance between familiar enough to be understood and different enough to stir curiosity.
Aim for "Optimally Distinct"
The way that our brains work, in order for us to perceive, attend to, learn, and remember something, we need that something to be relatable in some way. It needs to piggyback on top of something else that we already have in our brains in order for our brains to be able to let in the new information. We’re wired to conserve cognitive energy, so before a business asks a customer for something — their precious cognitive energy, and perhaps their dollars — that business needs to make it easier for them to see and understand the offering.
Wharton School marketing professor Jonah Berger writes in his book Invisible Influence that people like a blend of similarity and difference. When it’s the right blend, he calls it “optimally distinct.” This idea is exceptionally helpful for brand building in new or disruptive categories. Strive to be optimally distinct rather than radically different.
For an innovation to be contagious, it should be similar enough to something that a customer already knows, so that the person will latch onto it and feel “the warm glow of familiarity,” as Berger has called it – yet it should be different enough that it stirs the customer’s curiosity and desire to be different themselves.
Skinny + Jeans = Optimally Distinct
Take one of Berger’s examples: skinny jeans. They became super popular over the last decade because they are similar enough to something our brains already know (jeans) but different enough (the skinny shape) to be a breakout product. Or consider a product like Reese’s candies. The familiarity lies with each individual ingredient: we know chocolate, and we know peanut butter. The differentiation lies in the brand putting the two together.
Position Your Brand to Push Off the Known Toward the Unknown
I often say that the most underused component of a brand strategy is the unsexy but quite useful “frame of reference.” The frame of reference for skinny jeans is jeans. It’s familiar. I already spend money on jeans, and I already wear them and have a place for them in my head and closet.
Of course, you can’t stop with the familiar, no matter how warm the glow from it. You need to be distinct as well so that people will be intrigued and motivated to purchase. While you want something in the brand positioning that is familiar, something you can establish your product as similar to, you don’t want to linger long on that similarity. You want to push away from that familiar anchor with the thing that makes you different.
What Is Your Uncommon Denominator?
This is where my Uncommon Denominator framework comes in handy. It shows that you can’t rely on the overlap of what the customer wants and the expected category benefits – instead you must base your brand positioning on what the customer wants that only you can provide. In other words, identifying the familiar is your starting point, not your stopping point. It’s your doorway in, but your benefit needs to then push away from that by being distinctive too.
Successful Brands Embrace the Familiar While Creating Difference
Let’s examine how this works by imagining the brand positioning framework for three major companies: Netflix, Uber, and Amazon. Here is the classic brand positioning structure that we’ll complete for each:
To [the target customer], [our brand] is the one [frame of reference] that [differentiating benefit]. That’s because only [our brand] brings [reasons to believe] so that [the target customer] can [end reward].
Netflix: The Limitless Video Rental Store
- When Netflix launched, the familiar frame of reference was brick-and-mortar video rental stores, epitomized by Blockbuster. Netflix used that and then pushed away from it with its breakthrough differentiator of no late fees. Here’s a positioning statement they might have used:
- To film renters, Netflix is the one video rental service that has no late fees. That’s because Netflix charges you a simple monthly rate for DVDs you send back when you’re finished watching so that you can catch movies whenever without limitations.
Uber: The On-Demand Town Car
- When Uber launched, no one knew what this concept meant. So, Uber aligned itself with an existing and familiar idea, the idea of the private town car. The company’s positioning statement may have read:
- To users of town car services, Uber is the one town car offering that is on-demand. That’s because Uber connects you to a fleet of town car drivers via an app so that you can get where you want to go pronto.
- If Uber hadn’t embraced the familiar category of town car services, they’d have nothing to push off of. Customers wouldn’t have readily understood it.
Amazon Kindle: The Affordable Tablet
- Amazon Kindle came out with a positioning around value. It is the tablet that is affordable. By showcasing that it’s familiar (by playing in an established category, tablets), it could then push off of that with its differentiator, which is low price. Their positioning statement might have been:
- To Amazon customers, Kindle is the one tablet that is low priced. That’s because only Kindle is less than $100 so that Amazon customers can enjoy the freedom of a tablet at an accessible price.
- The source of familiarity is the frame of reference (tablets), and the source of differentiation is its astonishingly low price (my Apple iPad was $700, by comparison). If Kindle were to push away too far from the familiar category of tablets, its benefit of being super affordable would be less compelling because there’d no longer be a relative and familiar frame. Kindle has a superb brand positioning in part because it embraces the familiar.
Ground Your Uniqueness for Peak Customer Interest
As business owners, we know that differentiation is the crucial element to drive and grow a purposeful business – and brand plays a key role.
When you are creating your brand positioning, focus on what drives your distinctive competitive advantage, but don’t forget to first identify your doorway in, that all-important frame of reference. While your differentiator is essential, don’t get so carried away that you forget to anchor it in the familiar. Get this right, and you’re working with – instead of against – how the human brain perceives new ideas.