Why differentiation, positioning & persuasion are overrated

Today's marketing and even academia seem sure about one thing when it comes to brands:

A brand contributes to the firm's success by "standing for something...uniquely valued by consumers". A brand has a certain position in the minds of consumers and this position makes it "work"... so we are used to think - explicitly or implicitly.

That's why we all believe in specific benefits and emotional territories we want to "own".

Extensive research shows that
a) Brands tend to be not very differentiated in the minds of the consumers. I.e. in brand trackings most often there are hardly any really specific attributes attached to a brand exclusively. One of the reasons for this is probably that consumers do know that most brands and products are equal. Basically we do know that as well, we just not allowed to say it.
b) This "image parity" doesn't hinder market leaders from being far more strong and successful compared to competitors and also those competitors from making good earnings. There is no proof of meaningfully differentiated brands being systematically more successful as "undifferentiated" ones. The classic textbooks on positioning haven't even tried to prove it scientifically. Aaker, Ries & Trout etc. assume they are simply right in their over-obsession with a differentiating positioning just because it sounds so plausible. It's just as plausible as e.g. the model we all use: that attitudes guide purchase behavior - which is scientifically wrong most of the times - the reverse connection being measurably much stronger. (see also point d in this list.)
c) There seems to be no consistent evidence of specific benefits or values being attributed to brands by consumers even if they have had really insightful positionings or campaigns aimed at attaching those things to the brand. And brands are also not really used as advertised. Knoppers is not skewed towards a consumption around 8:30 in the morning, HSBC is not mainly used for global tasks, Kitkat is not necessarily eaten as a break filler.
d) Ads without a persuasive message are just as effective as those conveying such a "unique persuasive message". This is uncomfortable to admit - and for all pretesting researchers this seems insane (or just dangerous). But when you look at lots of the successful pieces of brand communication of commercially successful brands - lots of them don't persuade anyone of anything specific about their product. They might show or deliver specific stuff to the audiences but don't tell you that they are good or better than others at anything (e.g. Coke ads, or almost all social media activities which even avoid persuasive messaging on purpose.)

So what am I saying here? That there's no brand effects at all? No I'm not! It's just that lots of data and experience imply that there are other ways how brands and communication can work without stressing a differentiating positioning (message).

This alternative model stresses memory rather than persuasion and mental availability rather than differentiation or positioning. It also thinks of purchase not as a choice made by consumers using attributes or "benefits" that they "compute" to choose the right brand - but rather as a unwanted mental task that is performed half-unaware by using different heuristics that make the choice easier.

Instead of thinking of a brand as positioning you could think of it a something that eases choice by being present at the moment when this choice has to be made. This view is not new. In fact, it's the most basic and agreed upon "function" of brands. The sting about this notion is that mental availability is key - not differentiation. The brand that is more mentally (and physically) present at the decisive moment wins. Not the one with the most differentiating positioning! Whatever makes the brand Top of Mind in a certain situation is alright. Persil does not have to have a non-generic message if the branding is strong, popularity and familiarity are high, etc. It could but it doesn't have to. There's no "differentiate or die" here.

Now, is there no value in being different? YES, there definitely is! It's just that a distinctive idea, style or pattern doesn't work per se, but AS A MEANS TO MAKE A BRAND MORE MENTALLY PRESENT at the moment of choice (or recommendation). If you consistently look differently as a brand you will be recognized and memorized more easily. If you have a unique story that people
want to hear you will be remembered better. But it's not the difference itself that sells. It's the easier retrieval from memory, the familiarity & attention that are at work.

That's why you can tell that KitKat is for having a break and broadcast excellent commercials built around this notion and be successful doing that and still have a sales increase not connected to the break occasion. In fact, it would be stupid to limit yourself to one occasion. And still, those ads worked brilliantly. How? By being remembered and correctly attributed. And maybe - but just maybe - by implying certain moods relevant in the moment of choice. Note: not necessarily at the moment of consumption, but of choice! I think the most important thing about the KitKat break is he cracking/splitting of the Kitkat bars when they say "have a break". Which is basically intricate branding - visual, auditive, behavioral branding. It's the breaking of the bars not taking a break that makes it so brilliant. The break you take is the story around it that makes everything plausible, interesting, memorable & fun. There needs to be plausibility and category fit of such a story but it isn't more than that, maybe. Just a plausible story that you keep telling because it builds memory structures for you. Not necessarily because you want people to use it exactly when they have a break. Well, if it helps - yes, if not - screw it.

Same with brand personality (as part of positioning). Personality makes you stand out and be recognized. It's not that people buy the brand because they WANT exactly THIS personality. They buy the brand because its personality makes them remember and recall the brand. It's seems to be a too slight difference. But it's not! This alternative view frees us from stupid esoteric retrofitting arguments why exactly THIS personality, design etc is "relevant" and not another. It also frees us from pretending to find "unique" propositions let's say for insurance companies whatever it takes - which probably will end up in something generic how hard you may try. Try to make an interesting, resonating one instead. Or take the one they already have and make it resonate and being remembered and attributed right. Make the branding work!

Things people recall when they buy and that stick to your product or brand and don't get misattributed. That's what works. Call it positioning? Call it differentiating? No problem, go for it if you like. Clients want to hear it anyways. But don't forget that they are just a possible means to a necessary end: to being vivid in the minds of people at the decisive moment.

As my former boss once said (Peter, I do remember): "There was an era before the positioning concept and there will be one after. It's just a concept."

(This post is largely influenced by this book here: "How Brands Grow")