Differentiate AND die

This is the latest of my monthly posts on the Marketing Society blog.

11 years after the publication of Jack Trout’s seminal book “Differentiate or Die”, many companies are still trying to follow the author’s advice. However, in doing so they may be seriously limiting their potential to grow. In fact, a better title for the book might be “differentiate AND die”.

In reality, leader brands in a given market have a similar image profile to smaller, follower brands. They don’t stand out for any one special thing. Rather, leader brands are stronger across the board. In particular, they score strongly on the core benefits consumers want for a given market. The following results from image tracking in the UK mobile phone market illustrate this well. On almost all attributes O2 scores strongest, followed by Orange then Vodafone than T-Mobile.


O2 and other leader brands are not different. Rather, they are distinctive. This is a subtle but important difference.

Instead of searching for unique benefits, which would take them away from the heart of what people want, leader brands create highly distinctive marketing mixes. This allows them to express the core market benefits in a way that gets stored in peoples’ memories more effectively than other brands. They produce what is called “memory structure”.

The key to building this sort of memory structure is to create, amplify and consistently execute brand properties. These can take many forms, including slogans, music, colour, and  logotypes. In the case of O2 the brand has used its highly impactful blue and bubbly brand world to stand out. Being first to market with products like the iPhone has enhanced its image for innovation. Felix stole leadership of the UK cat food market from Whiskas despite being outspent by a factor of three to one, helped by the animated Felix character and the tagline “Cats like Felix like Felix”. In both these cases, the brands in questions weren't seeking to claim different benefits. They just did a better job of delivering against them.

One key challenge to creating and enhancing brand properties to build memory structure is of course the “new broom” syndrome caused by frequent changes in marketing director. A new brand leader often means a new ad agency, a new communication campaign and the binning of brand properties. However, memory structure is not only hard to build, its hard to change. This is why we increasingly see companies looking back at what made them famous and bringing back old campaigns, slogans and characters. Examples of this include Mars and “Work, Rest, Play”, the Tetley team folk and Asda’s “bottom-tap” linked to the “Asda Price” slogan.

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In conclusion, if you want to gain and maintain brand leadership, don’t try to be different. Be distinctive. And to do this, treat your brand properties as valuable brand assets, not bits of execution that a new team can bin to make their mark.