The Brand Differentiation Mandate

Jack TroutJune 25, 20088 min

In 1960, an advertising agency chairman named Rosser Reeves was known as the high priest of hard sell. He wrote a very popular book titled “Reality in Advertising.” His book was translated into twenty-eight languages and was widely used as a college textbook. In many ways it was the beginning of modern-day marketing.

In his book he introduced and defined a concept called the unique selling proposition, or U.S.P. for short.

The Definition

To Rosser, the U.S.P. was a precise term so he gave it a three-part definition:

1. Each advertisement must make a proposition to the consumer. Not just words, not just product puffery, not just show-window advertising. Each advertisement must say to each reader: “Buy this product, and you will get this specific benefit.”

2. The proposition must be one that the competition either cannot, or does not, offer. It must be unique — either a uniqueness of the brand or a claim not otherwise made in that particular field of advertising.

3. The proposition must be so strong that it can move the mass millions (i.e., to pull over new customers to your product).

He went on to say that most advertising in that day was “the tired art of puffery.” There was no real message. Copywriters who did not understand reality wrote these advertisements.

Well, you might think that this was an argument of the past and that Mr. Reeves’s ideas have long been accepted by today’s advertising practitioner.


The Argument Still Rages

What’s stunning is that the argument still rages on Madison Avenue. A front-page article in “Advertising Age” that was published thirty-seven years after Mr. Reeves’s book proclaimed:

“Poets vs. killers”: Perpetual ad debate — stress art or stick to hard sell? — is reaching fever pitch with fortunes hanging in the balance.

This article, that went on for pages, laid out the battle of the creatives that see their work as artful and emotional and the marketers who want advertising that is factual and rational.

One group wants to bond with the customer. The other group wants to sell the customer.

It’s time we stopped arguing and faced not reality in advertising, but reality in the marketplace.

Where’s Rosser Now That We Need Him?

When Mr. Reeves was talking about being different, the world was an easy place. Global competition didn’t exist. In fact, by today’s standards, real competition barely existed.

The concept of being unique or different is far more important today than it was in 1960.

While “to sell or not to sell” arguments have been raging, the New World Order has suddenly arrived. Today many companies have bigger sales than many countries have gross national products. The top 500 global companies now represent 70 percent of the world’s trade.

Mergers and acquisitions are everywhere as the rich get richer and bigger. Not only is there more competition, there is tougher and smarter competition.

What this new competition is often able to exploit is the fact that buying behavior isn’t just about people and income, it’s also about how dissatisfied consumers are with present alternatives.

Step 1 in Building Brands

There are books and books on branding but very few books talk much about differentiation. And if it does get mentioned, rarely do authors go much beyond talking about the fact that branding is important to do.

Consider Young & Rubicam, a very large and talented global advertising agency that has developed a system they call “brand science.” They say that “differentiation is first.” It defines a brand and distinguishes it from all others. It is how brands are born and how they die as differentiation declines. (I do believe they’ve got it.)

But rather than really get into the subject, they quickly segue to things like relevance, esteem, knowledge, and brand power grids.

Well, good readers, I plan on going further. If differentiation is about the life and death of a brand, I feel it’s worth your while to explore this subject in depth. (Good old Rosser would have wanted it that way.)

The Importance of Being Different

Choosing among multiple options is always based on differences, implicit or explicit. Psychologists point out that vividly differentiated differences that are anchored to a product can enhance memory because they can be appreciated intellectually. In other words, if you’re advertising a product, you ought to give the consumer a reason to choose that product. If you can entertain at the same time, that’s great.

Unfortunately, the fact is that many advertising people don’t appreciate the need to offer the prospect a unique selling proposition.

Most of these people feel that selling isn’t cool and that people only respond to companies that don’t try to sell them. Besides, many will argue, there often isn’t enough “difference” to talk about in the products. What they ignore is the fact that, whether or not people like to be sold, in a sea of choice a prospect still has the problem of figuring out what to buy or not to buy. In other words, alternatives are but the raw material of decision making.

And decisions must be made.

How People Figure Things Out

Psychologists think a lot about how people solve problems. They’ve come up with four functions that come into play: intuition, thinking, feeling, and sensing. People tend to lead their decision-making process with one of these functions. Let’s look at these functions from a selling point of view.

Differentiating with “Intuitives”

People who use intuition concentrate on the possibilities. They avoid the details and tend to look at the big picture. This type of person would be very susceptible to a differentiating strategy based on your product being the next generation in its category. When the makers of Advil positioned their new ibuprofen as “advanced medicine for pain,” they were differentiating themselves perfectly for the big-picture crowd.

Intuitives are very interested in the possibility of what’s coming next. This is why selling to intuitives is often a very effective way to present a new type of product.

Differentiating with “Thinkers”

Thinkers are analytical, precise, and logical. They process a lot of information, often ignoring the emotional or feeling aspects of a situation. While they may appear to be ruthless or uncaring, that isn’t really accurate. They are just thinking (Henry Kissenger types).

These people are susceptible to a logical argument of facts about a product. BMW’s differentiating strategy of “the ultimate driving machine” probably works very well with this crowd, especially when they present facts like ergonomic design, maneuverability, non-overweight engine, and lots of expert reviews on how BMW’s drive.

Differentiating with “Feelers”

Feelers are interested in the feelings of others. They dislike intellectual analysis and follow their own likes and dislikes. They enjoy working with people and are capable of great loyalty.

This type of person is ideal for third-party endorsements from experts who look and sound real. The Miracle-Gro campaign that differentiates itself as the choice of experts is perfect for feelers. Nice people surrounded by beautiful flowers and talking about the wonders of Miracle-Gro is a perfect strategy.

Differentiating with “Sensors”

Sensors see things as they are and have great respect for facts. They have an enormous capacity for detail and seldom make errors. They are good at putting things in context.

Hertz’s differentiating strategy of leadership (there’s Hertz and not exactly) is a great program for the sensors, who instinctively know that Hertz is indeed number one. (Twenty-five years of telling us they are number one doesn’t hurt.) To them it’s just common sense that Hertz is the best.

What should be noted is that people often are a mixture of these functions. “Intuitives” and “feelers” both tend to dislike too much detail. “Thinkers” and “sensors” work with more information. But they all are trying to make a decision on what to buy, one way or another.

You Can Differentiate Anything

Theodore Levitt, the Harvard marketing guru, wrote a book titled “The Marketing Imagination.” He was definitely on Rosser Reeves’s side when he stated in chapter 4 of his book that you can differentiate anything.

His point is that products must be augmented by offering customers more than they think they need or have come to expect. This could be with additional services or support.

General Electric does this by advising customers on the nuances of doing business around the globe. GE also added service capability so its customers didn’t have to keep service people on staff.

Otis Elevator uses remote diagnostics as a way to differentiate itself. In high-traffic office buildings, where servicing elevators is a major inconvenience to occupants and visitors alike, Otis uses its remote diagnostics capabilities to predict possible service interruptions. It sends employees to carry out preventive maintenance in the evening, when traffic is light.

Oral-B created a powerful source of differentiation with a toothbrush that tells customers when they need a new one (a patented blue dye in the center bristles).

Differentiating Commodities

Even the world of meats and produce has found ways to differentiate itself and thus create that unique selling proposition. Their successful strategies can be summed up in five ways:

1. Identify — Ordinary bananas became better bananas by adding a small Chiquita label to the fruit. Dole did the same for pineapple with the Dole label, as did the lettuce people by putting each head into a clear Foxy lettuce package. Of course, you then have to communicate why people should look at these labels.

2. Personify — The Green Giant character became the difference in a family of vegetables in many forms. Frank Perdue became the tough man behind the tender chicken.

3. Create a new Generic — The cantaloupe people wanted to differentiate a special, big cantaloupe. But rather than call them just plain “big,” they introduced a new category called Crenshaw melons. Tyson wanted to sell miniature chickens, which doesn’t sound very appetizing. So they introduced Cornish game hens.

4. Change the name — Sometimes your original name doesn’t sound like it would be something you would want to put in your mouth. Like a Chinese gooseberry. By changing it to kiwifruit, the world suddenly had a new favorite fruit it wanted to put in its mouth.

5. Reposition the category — Pork was just pig for many years. All that did was conjure up mental pictures of little animals wallowing in the mud. Then they jumped on the chicken bandwagon and became, “the other white meat.” A very good move when red meat became a perceptual problem.

Where there’s a will, there’s a way to differentiate.

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Jack Trout

One comment

  • Simon

    June 25, 2008 at 8:29 am

    Excellent article. Whether one wants to “sell” or “bond”, it is absolutely imperative to offer something different.

    Personally, I believe the “bonding” should come before the “selling”, as a relationship that can last beyond a one-off transaction will be more powerful. I am particularly impressed with the content marketing approach to this end – I have had many (branded) products given to me that have turned out to be very useful. When I use the product, I am reminded of the brand, and this can’t be a bad thing…

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