In Theodore Levitt’s "The Marketing Imagination," the renowned marketing professor said there was no such thing as a commodity, only people who think like commodities. Differentiation is still the name of the marketing game. Distinction in service, image and promise allows a brand to occupy a piece of a customer’s busy mind. More importantly, differentiation is the brand’s raison d’être, its reason for being that causes customers to think of it when they are ready to shop. And when they do shop, this is the brand that goes into real and virtual shopping carts.
Do Less, Better
Today, differentiation is under siege. Increasing customer and shareholder demands and the influx of new lower-cost competitors have CMOs caught in a "do more and more" strategic paradigm. At a time when they should do less, better, they are frantically adding more products, line extending brands, and endless features to products and services. The result is complexity. Complexity stifles organizations and confuses consumers.
Several big brand marketers have fallen on their own swords in their effort to drive growth. I have been a big fan of Kellogg’s since I was an account executive at the Leo Burnett advertising agency. The name stood for healthy breakfasts, and for decades, adept marketers worked hard to fortify that stellar reputation. This good work established Kellogg’s Special K as a healthy, nutritious breakfast for diet-conscious women.
Differentiation Requires Sacrifice
But, with a stagnating top and bottom line, Kellogg decided to spread their corporate wings. It is one thing to diversify, as per their acquisitions of Keebler and Pringles, but quite another to exploit a valuable brand asset by slapping "K" on products that fail to build or live up to Kellogg’s Special K’s core positioning. This is the opposite of sacrifice — this is sacrilege.
I see the rationale for nutritious granola and cereal bars, but the launches of cracker chips and flatbread breakfast sandwiches under Special K goes too far. Special K Cracker Chips contain 110 calories per 30 gram serving. This is marginally less than Frito Lay’s 127 calories for the same weight. Flatbread sandwiches may be 40 percent less calories than McDonald’s version, but they are still a combo of cholesterol, fat, and sodium that won’t do you any good.
The Drums of KISS Continue to Beat
If you want differentiation, you have to ask yourself this question: what am I prepared to sacrifice to get it? Differentiation in marketing requires giving up a benefit or two or three to make one compelling promise. That does not mean the relationship you have with your customers has to be boring. There are endless ways to engage without giving up on your brand’s core positioning. The drums of the long-serving KISS concept continue to beat in this complex business world. Those who embrace the notion of "keep it simple" and "do less, better" come out on top. Promising service is easy. Airlines, telecoms and credit card companies promise customer satisfaction all the time — do they deliver it?
In the high tech and information age sectors, consumer and customer insight is the precursor to product and service differentiation. Successful companies do not stumble upon insight. Inquisitive marketers burrow for it and conceptualize it. Then they act upon it. Great marketing becomes the cultural glue that binds every department and every employee to the vision — always has, always will.