GUEST COLUMN: Consumers don’t care how ‘different’ a brand is

Lucian Camp

Brand & Marketing Consultant

Lucian Camp Consulting

Lucian Camp is a financial services brand consultant, copywriter, author and blogger. He co-presents the On The Other Hand podcast.


Someone poked an estate agent’s flier through my letterbox this morning.  A5, printed both sides, and with very similar headlines on each side.  One said “We’re different,” the other “Let us show you why we’re different.”

The copy, though, appearing beneath the former headline, didn’t say much about this difference thing at all.  Instead, it quoted an impressive statistic:  the firm has “over 60,000 Google reviews averaging 4.9 out of 5 stars.”   As it comments, not unreasonably, “this is a testament to the hard work of our dedicated teams.”

I suppose you could argue that having all those positive reviews does make the firm different from firms that have fewer or less positive reviews, but as a potential home-seller who could be in the market for estate agents’ services, it’s not the idea that they’re different that appeals to me:  it’s the idea that they’re extremely good.  In fact, at 4.9 out of 5, it’s difficult to believe any other firm could be better.  Differentness really isn’t the point.

But in its small, leafletty way, this flier does tell us that the marketing and advertising industry’s obsession with the concept of difference is still alive and kicking – and although it’s been gently diminishing for several decades now, it still casts a powerful and generally malign spell.

Even I’m not old enough to know how it all began.  I could speculate that it goes back to the days when the main task for marketing and advertising was shifting packaged goods on supermarket shelves:  that if this task meant persuading housewives (as our primary target audience usually was in those days) to choose one breakfast cereal, or washing powder, or toothpaste, in preference to a whole bunch of others equally available and similarly priced, the best bet was to persuade her that your brand was in some actual, positive and measurable way different from all the others.

The need to tease out and then express some kind of difference became an obsession.  Agencies developed theories expressing their particular take on it.  The best-known and most successful was the Unique Selling Proposition, or USP, invented by an adman at the Ted Bates agency, Rosser Reeves.

I spent years in the early stages of my career trying to find ways of expressing USPs for chocolate bars made by Mars, client-side zealots for the USP theory.  What I found then, and many times since, was enough to make me suspicious of the whole rigmarole.  All too often I could come up with a U, or an S, but not a full USP:  the Us I could identify really weren’t very S, and the S messages I could come up with weren’t very U.

Now and then, admittedly, a product would come along which really was unmistakeably and positively different, and when a good advertising agency got its hands on the account the results could be outstanding.  It’s hard to deny, for example, that DDB’s 1960s US work for Volkswagen is the single greatest body of advertising ever produced by one agency for one client, and it is proudly and brilliantly about the idea that the VW Beetle was completely different from the typical US gas guzzlers of the time.

But even back then, most of the greatest campaigns had little or nothing to do with explicit expressions of differentiation,  and even if they seemed to they didn’t really mean it – “Heineken refreshes the parts that other beers cannot reach” isn’t making a serious point about Heineken’s difference from other beers, it’s just providing a springboard for some entertaining commercials.  By contrast, brands that banged on about some obviously-trivial or not-very-credible point of difference seemed self-absorbed and heavy-footed – did anyone ever really buy a Snickers bar because “it comes up peanuts slice after slice”?  Who ever slices a Snickers, for God’s sake?

One way or another, it already seemed clear even 50 years ago that demonstrations of difference were nothing more than just one of many ways, and usually not a very good one, of encouraging brand choice.  But I can confirm from my own long experience, as well from that estate agent’s flier, that although the beast has been injured for half a century, it’s taking an eternity to expire.  Loads of people on client and agency side alike seem unable to move on from the belief that the central task in positioning a brand in its marketplace is to find some way in which it can claim to be different from its competitors.

Almost always, though, we consumers just don’t care.  We just want a product or service with something about it that appeals to us.  We have no intention of scouring the market to establish whether or not there’s another product or service which has the same something about it, or indeed some other something, that appeals to us as much, or indeed more.  Admittedly it would be unwise to try to establish your brand in a position which everyone knows is already occupied by a competitor, but otherwise you can position any brand wherever and however you like.

There’s a lot that those estate agents could have done with that 4.9 out of 5 statistic.  Forty-nine out of fifty customers gave them top marks – that’s genuinely impressive.  Merely using the figure as support for the boring old claim that they’re “different” really is a terrible waste.

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