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The purpose of difference in driving growth

The purpose of difference in driving growth
Why being bold is the safest bet

Elliott Millard

Head of Planning

Wavemaker UK


We live in a marketing world that is obsessed by brand purpose. This has been amplified by the COVID-19 crisis, in which some brands have become anodyne. We’ve all seen brand communications assuring us that they are “here for you” in these “challenging times”. The net effect is that these brands’ communications have become un-differentiated and ineffective. While there is clearly a moral imperative for brands to support the country in times of genuine crisis, this is not the same as brand purpose. The “purpose” of a brand is, fundamentally, growth. A brand is created to stand out from the crowd and drive faster growth than its competitors. One of the levers for growth can be a higher-level purpose, but at their heart, brands are designed to be agents of growth.

And growth is hard. BrandZ data shows that 90 percent of brands over the last 10 years grew less than five points of market share.

So, what unifies the brands that buck that trend and grow faster than average? A huge and increasingly important element is the intangible part of a brand. The balance of tangible to intangible assets is currently at the highest it has ever been, at 15:85. The tech unicorns are the poster child for this trend: Uber has a market cap of around $48 billion despite making a loss of more than $8 billion in 2019. Tesla is valued as the second most valuable automotive brand in the world despite having not yet produced its millionth car (for context, VW produce >10 million units per year).

If the intangible elements of a brand are key to growth, can we explore what the drivers of that positive sentiment are? BrandZ’s meta-analysis shows that brand health is an almost-perfect proxy for brand success. Brand health is composed of three key elements – brand differentiation, brand salience, and the ease of conversion. Or, in Byron Sharp language, the combination of mental availability (differentiation and salience) and physical availability. Mental availability is much more important to brand success than physical availability (a ratio of 90:10 according to BrandZ analysis) and, by a considerable degree, brand differentiation has the biggest relative importance.

This can be seen most starkly when forecast brand growth is mapped against how a brand scores for differentiation and salience. Salience is a safe bet – even being less salient than the category average has a limited negative impact – but differentiation has a much more dramatic impact. Deviation either way from the category average will have a disproportionate effect. Being more differentiated will lead to more growth while an un-differentiated brand will see dramatically slower growth.

Clearly, differentiation is key. Brands that win are brands that are different. Brands that disrupt and positively provoke their audience.

This is not a trend limited to BrandZ data. Analysis of more than 6,000 Effies entries over the last 50 years has shown two key drivers of success are differentiation and bravery. Focusing on differentiation provided a campaign with nearly exponential lift in effectiveness. The more your advertising seeks to differentiate your brand, the more effective it will be. And campaigns that scored 5/5 for bravery were consistently the most successful. The truth is, if you want to create effective work, your safest bet is to take the biggest risk.

This can be seen clearly in the brands that sit at the top of the BrandZ top 75 list, which is dominated by categories that have been through extraordinary disruption over recent years – telecoms, retail, banking, etc. The brands that have thrived are those that have embraced risk, and the BrandZ ranking is packed with brands that have pivoted in some way. The most valuable brands in the country take risks in positioning (such as HSBC’s “We are not an island”, which was incredibly divisive), risks in product development (Sky have responded to the increasingly cluttered SVoD market by expanding the brand sideways into telecoms and gaming instead of simply competing with Netflix) and risks in communications (Brewdog, one of the fastest-growing brands in the list, has  used comms that are deliberately the antithesis of category norms).

As a marketing community we are the guardians of the brands we work on and with – many of which will outlast us. We owe it to those brands to be true to their original purpose: the purpose of differentiation and growth. Disruption should be embraced as the surest route to disproportionate growth, even at a time when society is itself in disruption. Clearly this has been hard of late; even before COVID-19, the market was cluttered, complex and volatile, but the results will pay back for the brave. We owe it to ourselves and the brands we represent to take risks and to positively provoke the growth that they deserve.