“I’m not like the other brands” – how to be different when you can’t differentiate

If there’s one thing that has B2B marketers in a collective chokehold, it’s the desire for differentiation.

But beneath this deep yearning to find something groundbreaking, genre-defining, and never-before-seen with every campaign, there lies a dark reality: most brands don’t have a true USP.

What really differentiates one HR platform from another? Let’s put our cynical hats on for a moment: the majority of products and services are only marginally rather than radically different from what the competitors have to offer.

Maybe your customer service is slightly better, or your data is slightly more accurate. These small points of difference are often difficult to quantify, hard to communicate quickly, and near-impossible to care about.

And if your brand is lucky enough to have something genuinely unique to offer, it’s only a matter of time before your competitors copy you.

Our burden is not to make a product appear unique, but to make it memorable.

It’s all about building mental availability with customers – encoding your brand into their memory structures so that it’s the first one they think of in a given buying situation.

As Byron Sharp explains in ‘On Strategy Showcase’, most people on the receiving end of a marketing campaign only come away with a general impression of a brand’s characteristics, rather than remembering any granular product details.

But as long as people are thinking of you, you’re doing something right. Ultimately, it’s less about communicating difference, and more about communicating differently.

Let’s take some cues from our B2C siblings

The measurable differences between various shampoos, chocolate bars, and washing-up liquids are usually negligible. Very often, it comes down to distinctiveness, whether you’re represented by a talking meerkat or an opera-singing Welshman.

Take the success of John Lewis’s Christmas ads. John Lewis was operating in the most saturated marketing environment – consumer advertising at Christmastime – but the majority of ads didn’t even show their products.

Instead, as explained by Les Binet and Sarah Carter on the Uncensored CMO podcast, the triumph was that of emotional storytelling; John Lewis was one of the first brands to focus on how Christmas feels, rather than the stuff you can buy. And it worked – the ads claimed a gargantuan ROI of 10:1.

‘But what about B2B?’ I hear you cry…

MailChimp’s first campaign is frequently cited by clients and agencies alike for its playful, stand-out creative that pokes fun at the common mispronunciation of the brand name. All without a USP in sight.

Ultimately, your product or service doesn’t even have to be better than your competitors – as long as you’re more interesting, you can still win.

This also presents a strong case for values-driven marketing. For example, a brand with diverse and inclusive advertising may win over its pale, male, and stale counterparts, simply by painting a picture of society that prospective customers find more relatable or appealing.

So remember: you don’t have to reinvent the wheel. You just have to make sure that the wheel is sufficiently distinctive.


(Header photo: Samuele Macauda on Unsplash)