Why marketers are nearsighted when it comes to positioning and differentiation

We all know that our brand must be different from our competitors, and that our advertising must stand out to be noticed. Everybody knows it, yet why does everything look and feel so damn similar?

The ideas of positioning and differentiation have been spoon-fed marketers ever since Marketing 101 and is an integral part of every strategy process. We all want to stand out, be unique and acquire some of the scarce resource that is attention. Attention smells like success. Unfortunately, there is an equally strong smell pulling us in the opposite direction, and that is fear. Being different means taking risk, and human beings – marketers especially – are terrified of risk.

So we bend the rules a little and allow our dissonance – the gap between the desires to be different and avoid risk –to redefine the concept of differentiation by manipulating the scale of difference.

A strategy project is confined to what resembles a lab-environment – the office. All thinking and meeting activity takes place within the corporate echo chamber, thoughts are expressed on a computer screen, inspired by numbers and figures and soundbites from the most artificial environment of them all; focus groups.

This severely limited frame of reference means we zoom in on a tiny proportion of all the things that influence how our work is ultimately perceived out there in the real world.

For example, we attribute too much importance to our category. We may analyse our competitors’ ads and messages to death, but we fail to analyse the environment in which these are to exert influence. People are being carpet bombed with messages every day, and their defence mechanism is to ignore it all.

People neither notice, remember, comprehend, care about, believe, nor act upon the vast majority of advertising messages. And they certainly don’t analyse them to figure out what the differences between brands are.

Just because we live and breathe a product and its category doesn’t mean everyone else do.

Imagine the category map, where a brand and its competitors are plotted along the sliding scales of the two key drivers of the category, represented by the X and Y axis. So far, so good. A couple of logos in each of the four corners – the four extremes – with some white space around our own brand; or perhaps a nearby white patch representing the promised land, to which only a brilliant strategy will grant us access and forever separate us from our competitors. Branding nirvana.

So what’s the problem? Because we’re so close to the task at hand, our nose is all but physically touching the spot marking the brief encounter between the X and Y axis, we fail to notice the vast areas of uninhabited land that exist outside the borders of our map. The great unknown unknown. That’s the real world, and for those who live there this extended map looks the same size that the original map looks to marketers. To these people, our brand, together with all our competitors, look the same. Like a close-knit group of little ants. It doesn’t matter to them if one brand uses the word ‘pure’ instead of ‘clean’. Or that one talks to pet-passionates instead of mere pet-lovers. Or promise a combination of great prices and great service, rather than just focus on one of them. And so it goes…

Difference is relative, and to be perceived as different to customers who have other things on their minds than the finer points of brand strategies, we better expand the scale to fit their reality, and consider our brand in relation to all other products and all other ads and everything else that’s out there.

First when we realise that our calls for attention are inaudible whispers to most people can we see how bold and brave brands must be in order to be heard. And that means challenging conventions; stop talking about yourself and instead seek to connect with people on a meaningful level.

The world of many marketers is still flat and inhabited by illusions of better mousetraps and arbitrary emotional territories. Only the brave minority dares venture beyond the borders of their category, and write their own laws by tapping into the vast human and cultural resources that exists out there in the real world.