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Differentiated vs. Distinct Brands

I had my eyes opened the other day. That’s one of the things I enjoy most about being in the branding business. You never stop learning. (It’s also simultaneously exciting and humbling to verify that there are people in this world who can still teach me a thing or two about the subject in which I’m supposed to be an expert.) Regular Brandtalk readers know that I’m always urging the owners and managers of marketable assets to build brands that differentiate from their competition. Don’t get me wrong, that’s still important. But I was made to see, recently, that distinction, more than differentiation, is the true holy grail of branding. We know that all businesses have brands, be they good, bad or indifferent. All businesses have that brand relationship with their respective markets even though, sadly, most of them neglect that relationship. But it’s very rare that consumers would say that the competitors within a market are all the same. You may hear someone opine that all banks are alike. But that person does their banking somewhere. They found a preference somehow. That’s because there is some differentiation that occurs naturally between competitors, no matter how alike they might at first appear. The wise competitor will leverage a strong brand strategy to amplify the difference – to the point of distinction.

Innovative competitors will look at what makes them different and build a distinction into it. Take the illustrations of the four creatures above. They are all the same in that they are all, well, living creatures. They are also the same because they’re all mammals. They all have fur. They’re all really cute. They’re all babies. But, in spite of all the things that make them alike, they’re still all different animals. A rabbit is not a fox is not a deer is not a hedgehog. They are differentiated. But which of them is distinct?

My first thought was that the hedgehog is distinct because of its spines. The spines, I would say, make it absolutely distinct from the other three animals. More than just different – distinct. But you could also say the fox is distinct because of it’s red color. You could say the deer is distinct because it’s the only animal that has spots. The rabbit is distinct because it hops and the others don’t. And this is the point. Distinction, in large part, depends on what you’re looking for.

Ask Boardwalk to discover an innovative way for
your business to turn differentiation into distinction.

In business, this means your brand has to be distinct for some characteristic that your market desires. Boardwalk recently completed a project for a client that manufactures sputtering targets*. They have about five major competitors worldwide. They’re all the same in that they do the same kind of work. Their brands differentiate them from each other. But our client has the opportunity to be distinct in the field because they specialize in building sputtering targets out of precious metals, as opposed to other kinds of metals, alloys or ceramics. If they can become known for that, clients who have a need for precious metal sputtering targets will be drawn to them like I was to the hedgehog. Another way of putting it is our client has found a segment of its market that it can serve better than anyone else. It can become distinct, top-of-mind, and first option by concentrating on delighting that segment.

I’m guessing that most of you, readers, agreed with me that the hedgehog was the most distinctive of the four animals. If so, we represent most of the market. But those of you who chose the rabbit, fox or deer are not wrong. You just represent smaller, niche segments of the market. Sometimes it’s more profitable for a business to be distinct to that area of the market that it can serve best. Just like our client is distinct to manufacturers who need their sputtering targets made out of precious metals.

Innovation is the key that amplifies the differentiation between competitors and, when put into the context of a market, makes one competitor distinct from the field.

* A sputtering target is a material that is used to create thin films in a technique known as sputter deposition, or thin film deposition. … As a result, most sputtering target materials are metallic elements or alloys, although there are some ceramic targets available that create hardened thin coatings for various tools.


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