Buzzwords Make Branding a Snap! It’s That Simple!

[January 15, 2010]

A key principle of marketing, one hears repeatedly, is differentiation through branding. From a local design shop trying to sell you overpriced business cards, to the brow-furrowing halls of Harvard Business School, the message is clear. You want to sell, Baby? Ya gotta stand out from the crowd.

It’s the topic that just won’t die. Not that it isn’t, as a principle, absolutely sound. When it comes to practical application, however, many advertisers run into a bit of a contradiction.

For example: If you work in direct mail marketing, there’s one sentence you’re destined to hear at least 10 times a day:

We have to break through the clutter!
Ironically, there’s a tendency to talk about “the clutter” as if it were some kind of natural phenomenon, like El Niño or the H1N1 virus. As if it weren’t an entirely man-made problem, brought on by the mistaken idea that bombarding people with mail they don’t want will persuade them to buy products and services they also don’t want.

I mean, if we really wanted to do something about “the clutter,” there are certainly enough marketing experts in this country, whether in business or academia, to attack the problem and arrive at a solution.

Yes, it would require a few major players to jump off the dogma-go-round that dominates marketing theory, but the upside would be that maybe, just maybe, your customers might actually start reading their mail again.

But, OK, if we accept that “the clutter” is a classic immovable object, we have no choice than to fall back into the loving arms of the goddess Differentia. And in the warmth of her tender embrace, we’ll try to sell our wares by making them stand out from the crowd.

Tangled Up in Tried-and-Trues
And yet, what words do we use to describe them?

• easy, fast, convenient (71,800 results)
• best of breed (1,650,000 results)
• best in class (3,150,000 results)
• business solution (1,820,000 results)
• your whole family will love it (576,000 results)
• don’t take our word for it (1,830,000 results)
• it’s that simple (11,400,000 results)

As the Google tallies in parentheses show, as of January 15, 2010, a great many people are currently engaged in the paradox of attempting to differentiate their offering with the exact same phrases as a great many other people.

Dig only the shallowest trench in these results and you’ll see the promise of “best,” “convenient” and “simple” is currently being applied to everything from software to suppositories. So not only are advertisers failing to differentiate themselves from competitors, they’re also failing to differentiate themselves from other product categories.

It’s precisely this lazy, boilerplate type of differentiation that has made millions of Americans throw out their mail, mute their TV and click past the infinite array of dancing skeletons in digital space. Like the elevator music of the 1960s, mechanical repetition of generic and largely unverifiable claims is now nothing more than background noise.

Can that really be anybody’s idea of differentiation? Yet year after year, the US marketing crank turns out a steady stream of same-old, same-old.

Web 2.0: “The UnClutter”?
Now, unless I miss my guess, more than one person whose opinion I value is ready to assert, in eloquent, scientific terms, that many of these issues with traditional advertising media are being addressed by the rise of user-controlled social media marketing.

Could it be that user-generated content and commentary will permanently break up “the clutter,” by allowing users to write their own cogently differentiating brand narratives based on their own specific experiences?

If so, the evidence should already be visible through branded pages on major social networking, sharing and blogging platforms. What will simple, empirical observation of these pages reveal? I mean to find out. Is a new age truly in the making, or do brands still believe they can stand out from the crowd—even in digital space—by following the herd?


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Mark Laporta

Writer, Creative Consultant
New York, NY




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