When I worked on the method brand from 2006-2010, we often talked about about trying to stand out in a “sea of sameness.” Like many aisles in the grocery story, household cleaning was dominated by brands that looked and sounded alike — same stock bottle packaging, same messaging, same product benefits, same designs, same claims. There was very little differentiation or distinctiveness.
As a small challenger brand team with a tiny budget, we realized method would never be able to “out-Clorox Clorox.” So method focused on being different. That was its reason for being. This was a constant battle, because whenever method would find some success, other brands would immediately try to copy the elements that were successful. The path of least resistance in a category continually leads to sameness.
Around that time, Byron Sharp and Ehrenberg-Bass evolved the whole understanding of marketing, partly with an emphasis on the importance of distinctiveness relative to differentiation. As they put it:
“Rather than striving for meaningful, perceived differentiation, marketers should seek meaningless distinctiveness. Branding lasts, differentiation doesn’t.”
In the long run, the method brand carved out a place for itself with distinctive products that were recognizably method, such as the teardrop-shaped hand wash. That rising tide in the sea of sameness spurred method to try to keep ahead of it, along the way creating distinctive products that were uniquely method.
I always find clarity in the perspective of Tom Roach:
“Sameness is commercial suicide – whether your chosen way of being different is differentiation or distinctiveness or like me you’re a cakeist and would ideally want both. Yet there’s a growing ‘sea of sameness’ out there, and the sea levels seem to be rising…
“Here’s my view, for what it’s worth. The central importance of brand differentiation has probably been over-stated historically, and the importance of distinctiveness had been under-stated until recently. But seeing the two as unrelated, alternative strategies rather than potentially complementary ones means we may be missing out on deploying the full power of difference at a crucial time: a time when both differentiation and distinctiveness have never been less evident in actual marketing practice.
“Because on marketing’s frontline, the differentiation vs distinctiveness debate can seem like an irrelevance when brands being different in any way is getting harder and harder to spot in the wild. In fact, if you want to be really critical, sameness, not difference, seems to be becoming the common denominator for many brands today…
“Perhaps one day differentiation and distinctiveness may be seen as two useful and complimentary tools in the marketing armoury rather than entirely opposing schools of thought.”
Here are a few related cartoons I’ve drawn over the years: