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Ritson: Differentiation isn’t about being unique.

According to Mark Ritson, who believes the two should not compete, relative differentiation combined with distinctiveness is the best of both worlds.

During his most recent Mini MBA webinar, Mark Ritson stated that differentiation does not have to compete with distinctiveness.

For the seminar, Defending difference, our Marketing Week writer argued that marketers had strayed too far away from difference in pursuit of distinctiveness, when they should be aiming for both.

Ritson first dispelled any notion that differentiation and distinction are synonymous. He said that they are quite “different” and that, while they may have comparable definitions in a dictionary, that is not the way to construct a marketing strategy.


He then went on to discuss the problems differentiation has faced in the past, including an obsession with being “unique” and how overstated its importance became in some quarters, such as in Jack Trout’s book Differentiate or Die. Ritson stated that “finding something unique is almost impossible, and when you do find it, it’s replicable in one way or another relatively quickly.” 


Instead, Ritson offered a more measured type of “relative differentiation” in which the goal is to have “more” of something than other brands in the category. Marketers should prioritize “attributes and associations that matter to their target consumers,” which will be sufficient to influence purchase decisions, according to him. He acknowledged that this was a more “diluted” version of difference, but it was more attainable. “Differentiation is not about uniqueness, it’s about difference,” he noted.


However, he says that in recent years, marketers have gone too far the other way and overcorrected to the point where distinction has been sidelined, almost entirely in favor of distinctiveness. He cited Byron Sharp’s How Brands Grow and the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute’s work as evidence that differentiation is a past way of thinking and distinctiveness is the future.

This course adjustment, according to Ritson, is equivalent to “jumping out of the frying pan and into the fire” because it is still overly concentrated and leaves marketers in a bad position.


He then proceeded to make his argument for what the ideal balance between the two should look like. He began with differentiation and stated that it all came down to strategically positioning yourself correctly and tactically performing efficiently. Marketers should focus on “one positioning concept,” he said, adding that the more concepts they add, “the more you dilute your chance to stand for anything and gain relative differentiation.”


 Ritson feels that even with a single positioning notion, it is critical not to wind up with 25 traits to demonstrate it. He advised being cautious and selective, as well as utilizing category entrance points and the 3Cs structure. When you’re comfortable with your position, use data to track it over time.


Ritson believes that when it comes to execution, companies should say less. Don’t try to over-populate or degrade your message with too many properties. Instead, he advocated saying less more often and investing in media. “If you put an excess share of voice in two or three attributes and say them more often than the competition, you will achieve relative differentiation,” Ritson explained.


But, most importantly, he believes that you must express your message in a unique way because the two compliment each other. Both, he argues, are always present, and while they may not always be equal, and you may choose to focus on one over the other depending on your category, they should function in tandem.

Marketers once emphasized differentiation, then distinctiveness, said Ritson. Marketers should embrace the generosity of both and have them collaborate rather than choosing one or the other.


A different viewpoint

After watching the presentation, Jenni Romaniuk, research professor at the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute, was ready to offer a different take on LinkedIn.

While she agreed with 60% of what Ritson said, she believes the other 20% was criticizing her colleague Sharp for using “cherry-picked” examples that don’t represent the complete picture of How Brands Grow. The remaining 20% was reduced to three important areas of true difference, which she refined into empirical testing.


“Difference is about creating a relative difference so that you are better or more well known for something,” Romaniuk explained. “[Ritson] did back away a little when asked if this was superiority; it sounds like what I call a mental advantage.” The premise was that in order to succeed, you needed to have a significant mental advantage on something crucial to purchasers.”


“You should only promote one attribute,” she said, “but his point was that a narrow memory network of brand associations is better than a wider memory network of brand associations.”


“This focus should persist over time, a ‘picking winner’ mentality – you pick something good and stick with it over time,” Romaniuk added. “This is what allows you to continue to be known for something other than competitors, and for this differentiation benefit to last over time (this is the Volvo=Safety model).”

Ehrenberg-Bass, according to Romaniuk, will shortly share statistics on the first two items and is working on the third.


In the Mini MBA in Brand Management, Mark Ritson teaches about distinction and distinctiveness. The following course begins in September.

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