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 of this: 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.
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