Marketing Troubleshooter Snippets: Differentiation & Distinctiveness

Let’s talk about two words that mean the same thing to normal people. To us lucky marketers, what’s the big deal about differentiation and distinctiveness?


Differentiation is creating an offering that is significantly different, accepted as so and bought because of the difference.

If differentiation is going to work, there’s got to be a significant difference: my lorry carries 50 tonnes, their lorry only carries 10. The difference could be to do with specifications, pricing, how you buy, service and so on.

  • But it’s got to be REAL and SIGNIFICANT.
  • It’s got to be recognised and acknowledged by the market. Don’t start me on customer service as a differentiator.
  • And it’s got to affect buying decisions. Are McDonalds selling more drinks because their straws are no longer plastic? I don’t know – but I doubt it.

But there’s another concept on the block: distinctiveness.



Distinctiveness is all about creating an offering that is recognisably (visually) prominent. It’s about getting your name, logo, colours or designs recognised as they make their buying decisions. Inevitably, this makes far more about visual branding and its pervasiveness. It’s also about money. It’s become distinctive without splashing the cash. So should you seek differentiation or distinctiveness?


Differentiation in action

Well, you can’t argue that differentiation is tough. Do we see a difference between a Gillette razor and a Wilkinson Sword razor? Even if one razor has 5 blades and another has 4, it’s a hard argument to make.

How is a BMW differentiated from a Mercedes? Remember, this is how are they seen as different by the market, not by the marketing departments in Stuttgart and Munich? So, is differentiation dead? Let’s test distinctiveness.


Distinctiveness in action

Which car is the Ferrari? You don’t need to be any kind of car expert to know the Ferrari was the red car. It’s a visual cue. If it’s ankle-high to a grass-hopper, loud and red, it’s probably a Ferrari. It’s DISTINCTIVE. While we’re on colour…

Anyone in construction or power generation wouldn’t need to see the logos on this kit to know it’s Caterpillar. It’s yellow. That means CAT in these markets. This is distinctiveness at work.

The cues that drive distinctiveness can be colours, logos, fonts, outlines, flavours, smells – or anything we can detect. You don’t need me to tell you the names of these companies, do you?

So that’s it then, is it? We should abandon differentiation and pursue distinctiveness? No, the wise marketer considers both especially if you’re working in the SME sector. Only weird marketing people worry about following one route or another.

Because let’s consider when differentiation DOES work.

Imagine a comparison between Sage and Pegasus. When Sage launched, it cost about £150 for the entire accounts suite whereas Pegasus used to cost about £200 for the sales ledger, another £200 for the purchase ledger, another £200 for – you get the picture. That was differentiation, surely?

And how about, instead of these two £50,000 cars we tried…These two. An all-electric Tesla against a regular BMW?

The pursuit of differentiation drives technical progress. Where would we be if Philips had decided that LPs sounded fine and we didn’t need CDs? If you’ve got something that’s really different, you’re lucky. Thrash it for all it’s worth.


Drawbacks to Differentiation

But remember three drawbacks to differentiation.

  • It’s got to be genuine and significant not contrived.
  • Secondly, it may be expensive. Most of us don’t have the budget to develop electric cars. So it’s probably not a great fit for SMEs.
  • And here’s the worst thing. DON’T EXPECT THE DIFFERENTIATION TO LAST. All those examples are from the past because now everybody’s doing the same thing. Everybody makes cassette razors. Everybody has an electric car. Everybody uses optical storage.

So that’s the problem with differentiation. Is distinctiveness any better?


Drawbacks to Distinctiveness

Think of the brands that have distinctiveness. The ones I’ve mentioned: Gillette, Apple, Sainsbury’s, BMW, Mercedes, Tesla. And these two: Google and Microsoft. Brands with distinctiveness are almost always the big names in their markets. Distinctiveness tends to strengthen the status quo not threaten it. And that doesn’t help SMEs.

To gain distinctiveness you need:

  • Time – because it works slowly. And remember that Google is far from new. It’s a 20th century company. It was founded in 1998. It’s a long way from being the new kid on the block.
  • Money – at least more than your competitors because you’ve got to make your name more prominent than theirs.
  • Consistency – because people won’t recognise a visual brand that keeps changing. You can change your logos and you can play around with it a little. Consistent doesn’t mean identical. And make sure everything’s consistent everywhere.


Differentiation, Distinctiveness and SMEs

How relevant is distinctiveness to SMEs?

  • We can be consistent. It’s the bedrock of any branding strategy for any organisation.
  • We can give the process time by setting realistic expectations.
  • But it’s unlikely any SME has the money to dent the distinctiveness the market leader already has.

So concentrate of others aspects of branding and other aspects of marketing.

This post is part of the Marketing Troubleshooter series.