Cadillac versus BMW
Neiman Marcus versus Macy’s
Macintosh versus PC
Dogs versus cats
Product marketing differentiates your products from other products. Brand marketing differentiates your customers from other customers.
Imagine walking on solid, enormous, continuous surface presenting all the possible features of products in a category. Customers can and do wander anywhere along the surface: over here there’s higher quality, walking over there the price goes down, walking over here at the product gets faster and more efficient. Product Marketing inherently assume this continuous surface connects all the products customers can consider as competitors.
Product marketers look for differentiation. They look for a spot on this surface they can own. And when things go exactly right—they look for customers to self-select based on a deep preference for that spot in the landscape.
In this sense, the holy Grail for both brand and product marketing is differentiation. However, differentiation is very different.
Differentiation in product marketing is the perceived separation between your product and your competition on this continuous feature surface. The ideal positioning is a spot only you occupy and therefore you describe is defensible. Often these spots are different in ways only you recognize as significant. This is a mindset Ron Weissman reminds us here is known as the “narcissism of small differences” to anthropologists. In feudal times, you can imagine a feudal lord finding this position and building a fort to defend it so no one else can occupy that spit of land. However, if you are small it is likely your fort is small…and weak. And it is likely that one of the bigger land owners will be able to overwhelm the territory if they simply try.
Brand marketing is different. With brand marketing you’re attempting to create is an island disconnected from this surface.
Brand marketing is realizing your goal is to separate your customers, not your product. You are creating an island. A discontinuous piece of land that may be hard to reach, but is just as hard to leave. You are creating separation in the customer’s decision process of your product versus your competitors. Not features, but personal identity. You are trying to get the customer to see themselves as the kind of person who looks for options all over your island, and not over on that other larger surface of land where you would likely be almost defenseless against onslaught.
If your customers feel like they have voluntarily left that continuous surface of features to be with their own kind and travel to your island, they will find themselves traveling on only that feature surface. They will ask which iPad version to buy or which dog breed or which Macy’s shirt. But their consideration of options won’t leave the island. After all, they are BMW people, not Cadillac people. Dog people, not cat people.
For a competitor to get those customers to leave your island to go to the other surface of land—to earn consideration—is wildly more difficult. They need to make the person willing to get up and swim, give up what they have been, change their identity. The force this takes, what chemists call the “activation energy,” is dramatically higher. If life on the island gets really bad, folks will flee, but they don’t do it lightly.
Rationale? Of course, the dog person says dogs are friendlier. The Macy’s person says the prices make more sense. The BMW owner says Cadillac makes boring cars. But the truth is not in these descriptions. The truth is these people simply do not consider anything in the other category when they’re trying to figure out how to meet their desires and needs. They are BMW people, dog people, and Macy’s people.