The death of differentiation, and how to overcome ‘Parity Plague’

The marketing industry is rightfully obsessed with “digital disruption” — it has had an undeniable impact on how consumers engage with brands and how brands sell to consumers. I would argue there has been an even more nefarious, less debated disruptor. I call it “parity plague,” and it’s having profound effect on how marketers need to think about building brands today.

Historically, brands were built on the premise of differentiation: find a singular point of difference, however small and seemingly mundane it may be, then build a consumer benefit off that difference. Since the classic days of packaged goods advertising — Tide ‘gets whites whiter’; Crest is ‘dentist-recommended’; Ballpark Franks ‘plump when you cook ‘em’ — conventional advertising wisdom dictated that differentiation was the most important aspect of creating and sustaining a successful brand.

But, today, we’re living in an increasingly parity world. From car insurance to cell phones to credit cards to salad dressings, consumers are faced with overwhelming choices of ever-more-similar products with less discernible differences. Now, more than ever, it is harder for brands to find and sustain a meaningful point of differentiation.

There are several reasons for the steady demise of differentiation. First, rapid go-to-market cycles and low competitive barriers to entry have made it easy for competitors to quickly close the gap on everything but the most game-changing innovations. Today, a first mover’s competitive window of advantage is measured in months, if not weeks. Second, the prevalence of category search (and now voice search) has created hostile conditions to brand differentiation; consumers have been trained to sort through myriad options that are similar by design, making it harder for brands to stand out. Finally, and perhaps most alarmingly, today’s consumers care less — and believe less — about what brands claim. In this age of rising skepticism, people just aren’t buying traditional brand assertions. The result: often the biggest ‘competitor’ in any given categories is parity itself.

So how do marketers overcome ‘parity plague’?

I have long argued that modern marketers need to dramatically shift their approach: from claiming a point of difference to crafting a point of view. Take a look at some of the most admired (and successful) brands today, from Nike to Disney to classic packaged goods marketer P&G. These brands are no longer asserting a functional difference that people can buy. Instead, they are asserting a perspective about the world that people can buy into.

One objection that some clients have around this approach is around ownability: “If it’s just a point of view and not a true point of difference, can’t my competitor can also claim it?” My favorite rebuttal is to make the distinction between owned and claimed territory. It’s sort of like the moon landing. The U.S. didn’t annex the moon. We just got there first and took a picture of it. Brands also have permission to claim any space, as long as it’s grounded in truth. A perfect recent example is Nike’s brilliant Colin Kaepernick work. The truth is, any brand could have leaned into that space. The difference is that Nike did—fearlessly, brilliantly, and without the need to peddle the differentiated features of its product.

Simply put, you have to stand for something or risk standing on shaky ground.

Jennifer Zimmerman is global chief strategy officer for mcgarrybowen

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