A certain fetish exists around the idea that brands must communicate that there is, rather romantically, something totally unique about them. After all, if they didn't, wouldn’t customers just buy from any old business offering the same thing?
But in reality, when we buy something, hire an agency, or make a friend, how unique they are is not our primary concern. We don’t want a lawyer with a totally unique take on contract law. We might find it odd if our accountant claimed an unconventional approach to balancing the books. We may not be filled with confidence by a creative agency whose maverick views on consumer behaviour aren’t endorsed by anyone else.
In a world where products and services are becoming ever more equivalent in terms of functional quality, it has become a truism that brand marketing is more in the business of selling emotional connections than product benefits.
But there simply aren’t enough basic human emotions to go around for every brand out there to stake a claim to something unique. As a result, many brands in the same category end up scrabbling over a limited number of emotional positions while offering very similar products. The resulting melee in such a confined conceptual space is a bit like watching a knife fight in a phone box.
For example, almost all mobile companies gravitate around two positions: connection (‘it’s good to talk', ‘be there’) or empowerment (‘power to you’, ‘more for you’, ‘go binge’). Whisky brands revolve around earthy maturity or wise connoisseurship. Washing powders focus on being a nurturing carer or protecting the environment.
What consumers really want though isn’t uniqueness, but clarity over what they’re getting; they want to feel that the adopted brand positioning is more than just cynically skin deep – in other words, that the emotional brand promise means something and is genuinely helpful to us.
How to bring your emotional positioning to life
A telecommunications brand, for example, might help customers explore in practical ways what it really means to connect with someone. As opposed to just talking to them, perhaps they will offer helpful guides on how to handle tricky conversations. Alternatively, if empowerment is the approach, they may sponsor a talk series on how to navigate the limitless choice technology affords us without getting mentally overloaded.
Or if we look at the wealth management industry, the quality of advice between firms generally doesn’t vary. But it's possible for a firm to bring to life its positioning around being a trusted advisor in a more comprehensive way. Perhaps by offering clients useful advice on around how to live well around money in the context of their whole lives, rather than focusing narrowly on the portfolio. They may host talks or produce content that explores what a healthy level of ambition looks like, what a wider attitude is to risk or what it means to leave a considerate legacy.
Take Red Bull; their positioning focuses on enjoying the adrenaline rush from physical and mental activity. It’s hardly unique. Nike could claim it too, as could Zumba or a small paintballing outfit operating near the suburbs of Slough. What works for Red Bull is that they have brought to life their positioning in engaging ways that go way beyond just ads, via their Cliff Diving, Flugtag, Air Race and so on.
The drive for brands to feel they need to be positioned in a unique way stems from a romantic misconception that there is something inherently virtuous in simply being different. The same is true in our personal lives of course. We all want to be unique and often feel that we might be – until we have to spend 25 minutes choosing a username.
Brands may not be able to be unique, but it doesn’t matter. Consumers don’t care how different a brand is. What they care about is how effectively the brand makes a difference in their lives.
Ewen Haldane is business director at The School of Life.