Is this the demise of differentiation?

It’s hard to imagine now, but there was a time when a brand was your main form of transportation.

I don’t just mean brands like Ford or American Airlines. I’m talking about brands that metaphorically transported you. When putting Nike’s on your feet took you to a playground court in Brooklyn. Where taking a sip of Heineken made you feel like you had tasted life in Holland. When having a Louis Vuitton purse on your arm could transform your local neighbourhood street into Paris’s Champs-Elysées.

This time is perfectly summarised in a particularly memorable clip from Mad Men:

But times have changed. What we buy no longer communicates how worldly we are, our Instagram feed does. Rather than buy that bag, we are more likely to choose a backpack instead, and put that money towards a flight to France.

In the Western world, material possessions are less and less something we aspire to own. Your car or your watch are not the sign of success that they used to be. Why aren’t we buying into the brand’s stories any more?

We no longer need brands to sell us a dream — we have our own dreams. And we strongly believe that we deserve to have them fulfilled. As a result, we are only interested in brands that help us to fulfil our dreams. We will not be convinced that someone else’s dream is our own — we know what we want. This is why the most successful brands today are those that are completely customer focused, which normally translates to being product and process focused. This translation is not always understood; allow me to illustrate it for you:

Imagine if Google did a marketing campaign for their web search algorithm. Advertisements and communication across all mediums, highlighting the features and benefits of their “product”, and how and why it helps you more than bing or Yahoo. That would be crazy, right? Who cares? And Google knows that. Instead of trying to differentiate their algorithm in terms of image or brand, they just focus on making their algorithm the best. As soon as they understand that it might not be producing the best possible results for users, they change it. And they don’t care about whom of their non-user stakeholders it disappoints.

That’s what being customer, product and process focused is all about. That’s why brand managers focusing on differentiation are fighting the wrong battle. Differentiation isn’t the point of brand management anymore.

It’s adaption.

Now, if you’ve got a marketing degree, the demise of differentiation as a success factor can seem like an anti-brand idea. This goes against everything we’ve been taught academically. Unfortunately, the “school” of marketing is founded on the ideas that were very successful at the time that marketing was born — and have been falsely taught as good brand management practices that can be applied in the future.

This was very good marketing and brand management in the 60s and 70s. That’s it. Brand management is not a science. The rules do not remain static over time. What was good then simply does not apply now.

For example, in the Prophet Brand Relevance Index for Germany released this month, Amazon was crowned the number one most relevant brand, despite the fact it “scores” very poorly on the emotional stakes. This goes against everything that most brand managers have been taught. Instead, Amazon wins incredible loyalty from its customers purely by focusing on delivering, both literally and figuratively. It knows that its customers don’t care that it began with books, it is happy to adapt its product range to precisely what its customers want and need.

In today’s environment, and the foreseeable future, if your product and processes are very, very good, and you are completely customer focused, you can kill the competition. This means that differentiation through emotional appeal isn’t only irrelevant for customers — it is not even relevant for your business model. There’s nothing to differentiate if you are the only one in your category.

And you know what — even if you do want to focus on marketing and branding without changing anything about your product and processes, you can still be adaptable. A great example of truly adaptable branding comes from the genius that is Stefan Sagmeister. His agency’s brilliant work for Casa Da Musica in Portugal came from the revelation that in design, sameness is overrated. Why not adapt how your brand is presented according to who you’re talking to, what you’re talking about and even who is talking? This is the way to make your brand relevant. This is the kind of branding that we want to see in the future.

There’s more to dive into in this idea. This is just an intro. Stay tuned for part two in the coming weeks.

Emily is a brand management consultant at becc agency GmbH