Charles Vallance: Distinctly different


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Charles Vallance



When did you last win an argument

For most people, it's not an easy question to answer. Because in most arguments, neither side wins. From the serious to the trivial, we tend to be mule-like in our attachment to a pre-conceived opinion

Whether it involves binary arguments like Brexit/Remain, or more nuanced arguments around social etiquette such as whether an apology is sincere or perfunctory, whether you or the other car should give way, whether you should or shouldn't use your phone during a family meal etc; people will have their fixed views and will, generally, stick to them. (And the answer is, no, you shouldn't use your phone during a family meal.

More than 50 years ago, in his book the Theory of Cognitive Dissonance, Leon Festinger demonstrated that the brain is deeply reluctant to modify its beliefs and the cognitions which form them. Therefore, any attempt to change someone's mind in a head-on manner is likely to fail. More recently, Hahnemann has demonstrated how deep seated and instinctive so many of our beliefs and decisions remain

For both these reasons, arguments generally don't work. Indeed, I'd go so far as to say that, once you've started to have an argument with someone, you've already begun to lose them. And even if you do technically make your point they won't exactly thank you for it

But many brands still act as if rational argument is the way forward. They lead with marginal points of difference, they load their communication with less than fascinating product information

In the process, distinctiveness is too often sacrificed in favour of differentiation. And this trade off can prove very costly. Because if you sacrifice distinctiveness you sacrifice memorability, and if no one remembers your (possibly arcane) point of difference, what was the logic for trying to communicate it in the first place?

Mental availability has become, by some distance, the modern communication imperative. You have to win a foothold of memorability in the mind of your prospect before you can begin to consider telling more of your story, and imparting the more granular detail of product and service rationale

It's not that distinctiveness precludes differentiation, far from it. It's just that one must come before the other. To coin a clumsy new word, you have to 'distinctivate' before you differentiate - because your distinctive brand assets are the hook on which to hang the many details and nudges that might help sway a sale or influence a behaviour. Without the hook, you have no persuasion

The sophists amongst you will say, ah but sometimes your difference is your distinction, there is no meaningful separation between the two. And you'd be right. Duracell is a great example of how to make a distinctive brand asset out of a point of difference. In a low interest, low frequency category it has made itself memorable around a core product benefit

But there are plenty more examples of brands we remember because of their distinctiveness, because of their meerkat, their black horse, their blue and bubbles, their swoosh, their yodel, their contour bottle, their golden arches. These brands tend to be more multi-dimensional in the benefits they offer and the stories they have to tell

Paradoxically, brands built on the high order principles of distinctiveness, also tend to be best equipped when it comes to the low order business of hard-nosed trading and sales activitity. Like all tactical communication, their low order messaging won't be remembered for long, but it will be better attributed, and it will cut through the noise. It will sell better, because distinctiveness allows detailed messaging to be assimilated more readily and thus acted upon more easily. The more you distinctivate, the more you can activate

My first boss used to say that a strong brand gives your product a first class ticket through life. And the modern hallmark of a strong brand is indelibly branded distinctiveness. This is the measure of first-class communication. No argument about it