Meaningful differentiation strategies

By Benito Opitz

That society has become more critical over the last few years is not just a marketing ploy. We are constantly confronted with new examples of how user demands are increasingly specific and hold ever more sway over brands.

Within this article, I will outline two strategies that help brands to deal with the increasing potential for criticism. The secret lies in a higher, more meaningful form of differentiation than we have known in the field of marketing so far. A new form of differentiation that makes brands so meaningful that they might be protected against the hysterical form of social criticism that we observe regularly in the digital age.

How risk societies produce the need for meaningful differentiation

Where does this new criticism come from? Ulrich Beck already postulated this “criticism” in what is probably his most important work, “Risk Society”, in the 1980s. He introduced the term “risk society” to explain how risks shape society. Beck speaks of modern societies producing and reflecting on risks and dealing with themselves through the burning glass of this reflection. Beck postulated that the constant production of risks and reflections makes our society more critical. Digitalization and mobile internet potentialized this phenomenon, conveying sudden unforeseeable events and leading to social crises such as the Refugee Crisis, Greek Crisis, Euro Crisis, World Economy Crisis and so on. As a result of the permanent crisis our society becomes highly alert and overcritical, which is what theories today describe as a necessary mechanism to cope with complexity.

This pronounced criticism has a tremendous effect on branding. Empty promises, services without real added value, or artificially constructed stories around brands and products are quickly uncovered and, in the worst case, built up to a shit storm. This leads us to the question of how to deal with new criticism in branding. The answer: brands need a higher form of differentiation; a more meaningful form derived from social science and known as “singularization”.

In his 2018 published book “Die Gesellschaft der Singularitäten” (Engl.: The society of singularities), renowned social scientist Andreas Reckwitz states that singularization is the persistent striving to become extraordinary and unique. Albert Einstein for example was definitely a singularity. With his unsurpassed thought experiments, he was able to visualize the most complex physical processes like nobody else, enabling him to establish physical laws that went far beyond knowledge of his time. He was eventually successful because he had outstanding competencies that nobody else has had, helping him to become the best in his field. Just like Einstein, singular brands need to develop extraordinary unique competencies, enabling them to create products and services that really matter to their users.

Here are two different strategies that may help brands to reach the status of becoming either a cultural or technological singularity.

How brands can become cultural singularities 

Cultural singularization strategies are especially relevant for categories such as food, fashion, furniture, hospitality, healthcare, and other consumer goods and services. The French sociologists Luc Boltanski and Arnaud Esquerre describe how to create culturally singular brands. They state that culture and economy mutually enrich each other. In their book “Enrichissement. Une critique de la marchandise”, published in 2017, one can find useful indications on how brands can add value by becoming cultural singularities. Brands can achieve this singularization effect by connecting themselves to culture, for example, to:

  • historic regions or cities (e.g. luxury watch brand Glashütte)
  • suburban music styles (e.g. Europe’s largest telecommunications provider Telekom built a media platform, offering comprehensive coverage of contemporary electronic music.
  • classical art (e.g. sneaker brand Vans refers to painting with its “van Gogh Sneaker”)
  • popular influencers (e.g. German drugstore brand cooperated with beauty video blogger Bibi to launch the body care brand Bilou).

These are just four examples and there are many more on how cultural singularization can become a relevant success factor. Let me give you a more detailed example to make my point:

The famous football star Colin Kaepernick built up a rebel image for himself by protesting against racial injustice in the United States. Eventually his fight cost him his career as a football player in the National Football League. To support him and his fight for civil rights, Nike decided to cooperate with Kaepernick. Nike launched several ads using Kaepernick as a brand ambassador. This campaign resulted in strong reactions – positive and negative – resulting in President Donald Trump’s call to boycott Nike. But despite that, the cooperation was a huge success – the sales of the brand sky-rocketed. Nike tied itself to Kaepernick’s protest and showcased cultural branding at its best.


How brands become technological singularities

The technological singularization strategy exploits the power of singular technological brand competencies. Becoming technologically singular is especially relevant within categories that face radical change. Telecommunication, electronic devices, energy supply, banking, insurance, public administrations or mobility are perfect examples of categories in which brands can trigger radical change.

To become a technological singularity, brands need to develop competencies that their competitors do not possess, and simultaneously have the potential to help them become category leaders. Technological singularization is often about the development of unusual competencies for a specific category that will provide a competitive advantage for future endeavours. The times of doing the same thing but doing it better or more efficiently are definitely over. Brands that fundamentally think about categories to break into them will be rewarded. Business leaders need to ask themselves which stand-alone competencies they need to develop to make them a market leader.

Tesla is the most prominent best practice case for this sort of strategy. Elon Musk believes that automotive brands should describe themselves more as software companies than car manufacturers. For him, car production is a necessary evil. He is not as proud of the mechanics of his cars as he is proud of the software that will make Tesla Cars drive autonomously at some point. Musk is focusing on Tesla’s extraordinary unique competency to enable the “most advanced piloted driving”  rather than focusing on hardware development.

And the functions with which Tesla enriches its cars have additional traits. The Tesla autopilot, for example, is already the best in the automotive sector from the factory. With constant updates it becomes even better over time. Following  this strategy, Tesla makes sure that its cars stay extraordinarily unique – even the older models. With each update, the car drives more and more autonomously, guaranteeing outstanding  product experiences over the complete product lifetime. On a technical level he created a singular top-notch brand that has the best prerequisites to outpace classical automotive brands and to be successful in the long run.

In summary, technological as well as cultural singularization strategies are about carving out unique competitive advantages. When done correctly, these strategies may help to create relevant brands that will also remain meaningful in highly transformative environments. As a consequence one could say that the time of interchangeable products created by brands without cultural purpose or up-to-date competencies is definitely over and that singularization is king!

Benito Opitz is Senior Brand Strategist at MetaDesign Berlin.

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