Brand differentiation vs. Brand distinctiveness what matters more?

Kapil Vaishnani
by Kapil Vaishnani  |  15th Feb, 2021 in Branding

Talking of brands, some terms like USP, differentiation, and identity naturally come to mind. Marketers often confuse differentiation with distinctiveness but any brand strategy company knows that there is a subtle difference between the two – so before jumping into what matters more, let us first understand this difference.

Brand Differentiation vs. Brand Distinctiveness

Most marketers are aware that differentiation has to do with standing out among the crowd – or creating a brand USP. This, however, does not make your brand distinctive. Brand distinctiveness happens when you create a unique identity for your brand. FedEx is perhaps the best example of distinction. It brings distinctiveness in its various services with a simple change of colour.

Image sourced from https://www.logaster.com/blog/fedex-logo/

That’s the distinction. But there are other courier services too! So what does FedEx do to differentiate itself from the rest? It promises to deliver on time through its slogan “The World on Time.” That’s brand differentiation – the value you provide to your customer – a.k.a. your USP.

What matters more?

A distinction is what gives a brand its identity. Being recognized with a swoosh is what makes Nike different from other shoe brands – but that is not its USP. The Nike USP is to provide the best quality sports shoes. This is what differentiates the brand from other shoe brands. So, the question essentially is –

What’s more important brand identity or USP? And the simple answer to that is both.

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A brand – or product – that is readily recognizable sells more. A brand is readily recognized when it has – or develops – an identity of its own. It’s the reason we easily identify certain products – like Colgate Toothpaste – on supermarket shelves or online stores. A brand is distinctive when its identity leaves a lasting impact on the consumer. Distinctiveness may be comprised of one or all of the following elements –

  • Logos

such as the Nike swoosh or the golden arches of McDonald’s

  • Colours

such as those of various FedEx services or the hot pink of TMobile

  • Taglines

Nike again – Just do it – or the Good Food Good Life tagline of Nestle

  • Symbols

Think Mickey Mouse ears that symbolize Disney Inc., or the arches of McDonald’s

  • Jingles, Tones or Sounds

The You’ve Got Mail message from AOL or the Samsung default ring tone are classic examples.

All these brands have their own USP that differentiates them from other brands selling the similar – or same – product. Amul, for instance, is the most trusted butter brand in India while Colgate is the most trusted toothpaste brand. Both Nestle and Cadbury manufacture chocolates but Nestle is recognized more for its dairy whitener, KitKat and Milkybar while Cadbury is the feel-good chocolate. Cadbury has built its USP around the romance while Nestle focuses on good health.

Simply put, brand differentiation is the strategy behind the USP while brand distinctiveness is the identity of the brand – two very different things don’t you think?

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Which Way to Go?

Most marketers – convinced that it is paramount to differentiate a brand – strive to create a USP and build their entire strategy around that. Little do they realize that brands frequently escape notice despite having a strong USP. We’ve been talking a lot about Nike but Adidas manufactures sports shoes too. What differentiates the two is that Adidas promotes creativity in sports while Nike focuses on overcoming your weakness. Take a pause though and think; – would you have noticed one or the other, if it were not for the Nike swoosh or the Adidas stripes? Or think about Pepsi and Coca-Cola. While one promotes happiness the other promotes fun but that’s not what you remember about these brands – what you do remember are the red and blue colours of the respective logos. There are many more examples but coming to the point –

Distinction is an important component of any brand – it is what makes the brand recognizable

Is Differentiation not Important?

Of course, it is! Differentiation has its place in every marketing strategy. As we said though, your consumer is a lot less likely to remember your brand because of its differentiation as compared to its distinction. Moreover, your USP is likely to wane over time. Even when you have the first-mover advantage – think Amazon or Uber – there will soon be many other players competing for market share. Recognition is what helps you ride the wave. Amazon’s blue on white stands out among all other e-commerce websites and is easily distinguishable even among the huge outcrop of other e-commerce sites. Making your brand recognizable is of paramount importance. But USP – or differentiation – is important too. McDonald’s is not known just for its arches but also for its USP of providing a healthy and tasty meal at an affordable price. Cadbury would not survive on its brown over blue logo alone if it were not for the fact that the brand symbolizes romance and celebrations – just think of the Cadbury gift box and you’ll see what we mean.

Choosing one over the other – brand distinction or brand differentiation – is not an option

Uniqueness and value (think USP) are both key elements to making a brand distinctive. On the one hand, that the idea, logo, concept, colour theme, and your brand statement must be unique. These elements are etched deep within the subconscious mind of your consumer. They are what will carry your brand forward for years, decades, and even centuries. On the other hand, consistency and value – your USP – are what make him pick your product every time repeatedly. Together these two – distinctiveness and differentiation – will forge long-lasting relationships with your consumers and help your brand grow – taking it straight to the top.

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Kapil Vaishnani

Founder - Chairman, Litmus Branding Pvt. Ltd.
Kapil Vaishnani founded Litmus in 2001 to water his passion for creating brands. Kapil’s a creative brain hitched at business. He firmly believes that focused communication is the key and it must carry a purpose that serves both brand and business. Simplicity is Kapil’s power gear that has shaped some of the prominent brands in India and globally. His passion-filled sportsmanship with multi-disciplinary talent is brimming with experience of 20+ years. Talk sense and he is all ears.