How different should a brand be?
All brand positioning should differentiate you. That's the point of it. When you look the same as your customers' other options, they're less likely to bond with your business.
But how different? Are we talking about taking a sharp left turn from the category? Are we talking about loud and wacky differentiation? Or are we talking about something subtler? In short, your business should be both familiar and different.
One of my favorite authors, Jonah Berger, calls this being “optimally distinct.” To be optimally distinct, you want to be both familiar and different. The “familiar-ness” opens the door so that the customer sees you and understands you. The “different-ness” makes the customer want what you offer and to walk through that door.
Part of striking optimally distinct depends on your starting point, your category. When you're in an old, entrenched category, you want to lean into what's different about you to achieve optimally distinct.
For example, when Dollar Shave Club launched in men's razors, they were entering an old stodgy category, but they leaned in with a different subscription delivery model and a different rebellious personality.
If you're a new-to-the-world idea, you have the opposite problem. Which is that the customer doesn't understand what you bring, and you need to anchor into something familiar to them.
Think of Airbnb. It was a dramatically new-to-the-world behavior to use the internet to find beds to sleep on when you're traveling. So Airbnb leaned into what was familiar about their idea. They called themselves Airbnb, referencing the familiar bed and breakfast idea. Their character emphasized belonging and comfort and psychological safety. All of these were old, familiar ideas. Airbnb achieved being optimally distinct by leaning into what was familiar.
Think about your brand and category. Are you familiar enough that your customer understands what you bring? Are you different enough to spark interest in that customer? Be optimally distinct. Be both familiar enough that your customer sees you and understands you and different enough that they want what you offer.