• Transform magazine
  • February 29, 2024


It’s time Middle Eastern brands focus on building distinction rather than carving out differentiation

Brenda Kassir

Is the concept of brand differentiation overrated? Brenda Kassir, chief strategy officer at Livingroom Communication, explores this theme and demonstrates how brands from the Middle East should instead be more distinctive.

Brand differentiation has been a key tenant of brand building and marketing theory for decades – the idea of leveraging a perceived meaningful difference between a brand and its competitors in the category that provides buyers with their reason to purchase and be loyal to the brand, thereby making its customer base more secure[1].

Marketers and agencies have developed tools and techniques to uncover a brand’s “unique selling proposition” (USP) and its “brand positioning” because these were the paths to owning a space in consumers’ minds and shaping what we wanted them to think of our brands.

But research by the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute (2007) of “Evidence concerning the importance of perceived brand differentiation” challenges the central role of differentiation to brand strategy. Their research asked current buyers of certain brands directly how ‘different’ or ‘unique’ they perceived the brands to be, and they found that the majority of them did not explicitly state that they perceive their brand to be differentiated from other brands. This led them to conclude that differentiation plays a more limited role in brand selection than the orthodox literature assumes.

Don’t be different, be distinctive

The main implication of this research for marketing is that marketers do not need to convince buyers that the brand is different in order to get them to buy. Rather, marketers should focus on the things that do trigger purchase which, according to the research, is less about a brand’s relational aspect to other brands in the category, and more about distinguishing a brand in order to help buyers notice and build associations that make it easier to identify the brand in buying situations and/or when the brand is being advertised. These elements can include: 

  • Colours - such as the Coca-Cola red; 
  • Logos - such as the McDonald’s arches; 
  • Taglines – such as Nike’s ‘just do it’ 
  • Symbols/characters - such as Mickey Mouse’s ears, the St. George Dragon; 
  • Celebrities – such as Michael Jordan for Nike; and 
  • Famous advertising campaigns or platforms – such as Mastercard “priceless” or Omo “dirt is good”.

The research suggests that these distinctive qualities benefit the consumer because they reduce cognitive effort by aiding search and information processing. As Faris Yakob points out in ‘Paid Attention’, in our hyper-capitalist economy, product parity is easy to achieve in most categories, and competitive advantages are easily and quickly narrowed. As better-quality products enter the market, brands help people by functioning like short-cuts and taking away the need for complex decision making at every purchase.

Distinction is not relational

Whilst differentiation forces marketers to navigate their position compared to other brands, focusing on distinction frees up marketers to follow their guiding principles and design a vision for how their brand shows up in the world, what values and emotions they represent, without the need for comparison.

With distinction in mind, our task becomes building mental availability for our brand so that buyers will notice, recognize and/or think of it when considering a purchase.

Building distinction in the Middle East

Nevertheless, in the Middle East it is still common for clients to benchmark their brand against competitors in a quest for differentiation. To be fair, this is what strategic business management has historically been all about. They spend more time in the familiar comfort zone of “what is” and what the competition is doing, and less time nurturing the brave mindset and supportive team environment needed to focus on how to lead categories, the “what can be” based on emerging cultural trends and a bold yet authentic vision.

But as every category is being disrupted and democratized, it’s time to think outside your category and beyond your competitors - own your brands’ innovation and transformation process.

Tenants of building a distinctive brand

Here are a few guiding principles that I keep in mind as I design brands of distinction:

  1. Brand can achieve scale, make an impact!

Brands have an advantage over individuals – they can effect change at scale, but with that comes responsibility. Don’t be bland, be bold. Do something that improves the world, or at least the part of the world you operate in. Help your customers see and understand the world differently – like Bodyform’s ‘Womb Stories’. Do things that provide your customers value, like Mercedes-Benz USA who transformed itself into a best-in-class, customer-obsessed organization with its guiding purpose “Driven to Delight”.

  1. Tell a compelling and interesting story

Content - especially social content - is most often created to provide information or entertainment, but advertising is about persuasion - it’s about getting people to take notice and adopt or change a certain behavior. And the best way to help them pay attention to your product and to persuade them to make a purchase has been shown to be via captivating stories, which are not necessarily logical ones. As Paul Feldwick argues, “You just need to put on a show that keeps people in their seats and puts them in a good mood. They’ll like you better, and then they’ll buy more of your stuff”.

  1. Culture has depth

Culture shows up in our notions of self, time, justice, friendship, communication styles and dress codes. It is basically how we interact and navigate the world around us, which is complex and layered. 

Brands are some of the most widely recognized and ubiquitous cultural forces in the world today, they shape a lot of the way that people behave, how they look, what they believe. Think of the way that Nike has been influenced by and also how it influences popular culture.

Ana Andjelic asserts, in today’s modern aspiration economy, it is not enough for brands to engineer products and services but they need to engineer social influence in their market. Just as Patagonia and Yeezy have done - “To hack growth, brands need to hack culture first”.

One way to hack culture is by forming or becoming relevant to already established ‘taste communities’, a collective of people who share common lifestyle interests, values and thinking. 

People like to be part of like-minded groups who come together based on their passion for something – whether that is a cause, a certain hobby, or exclusive products. Brands who have a distinctive focus - like Off-White or Hermes – are able to create a certain culture and attract a certain type of loyal customer who congregates based on a specific style and taste, and this attracts others and they form a taste community. But these brands are built on service to the community – not marketing alone. They attract and retain customers based on features inherent to the origin of the product or service, and the way it was built and the way it interacts with the world around it.

[1] (Aaker, 2001; Kotler, 1994)