The Distinctiveness is the Message

It’s a funny time to be in advertising. We’re working through an (information) age in which there has never been more brands, more media channels, more content and as a result of all of this, more noise.

How’s all of that working out? Well in some media channels the cracks are already starting to appear.

Other channels in both traditional and digital media, are managing to hold in there. But, depending on who you're listening to, the former is either dying or becoming a premium media and the latter is either an engagement medium or starting to work more like a broadcast medium. Overall the result is an advertising industry that is fractured by both service offerings and approaches. 

In many ways complexity in marketing communications is actually just a reflection of the complex society we live in. 

Joseph Tainter, noted in his study of complex civilisations that, “complex societies create diversification and specialisation in structure, function and behaviour.”

Or in terms of industry, complexity creates a specialisation of fields. Hence, the introduction in advertising of specialist agencies to meet specialised needs. Brands in turn have become complex systems.


Brands in turn have become complex systems.


The problem with complexity is that it requires more resources to meet the requirement of each specialised need. If those resources aren’t successfully integrated, failures in the system begin to occur.

A quick look at the average brand’s agency roster and it’s clear that most businesses are reticent to give true full-service to any single agency. We are simply a part of an industry that prefers specialists.

Many marketers feel more comfortable working with specialists, as they believe they are more capable of solving the unique problems identified in each channel. 

From a media perspective, a perceived problem arises when each new media channel is created. An audience grows around that channel and marketers realise that attention is being stolen from an existing channel. The mode of delivery takes precedence over what is actually being delivered. Marketers then look to these specialists to provide solutions in each of the new channels.

But specialisation has never just been limited to media channels.

Andrew Ehrenberg recognized that advertising is, ‘generally expected to fulfil several very different tasks, sometimes more or less simultaneously.’

We know that this includes promoting a new brand, acquiring new buyers, retention and loyalty, increasing basket size, motivating sales staff, suppliers and retailers. The list goes on and on.

Multiple tasks, that all require specialised solutions.

That becomes an even greater problem when you have multiple agencies pulling in (even slightly) different directions.

On social media brands preach to the converted by fostering a devoted community of (already) loyal buyers. And surprisingly, for an industry whose purpose should be to make brands more memorable, many default to the ‘cyberslang’ tone of voice in order to fit in, rather than stand out.

Branded content and native advertising are adding to the noise online, with some industry experts even calling for brands to become outright publishers. 

Much of this makes getting people's attention (one of the first steps in effective advertising), even harder.

As Faris Yakob notes, “digital platforms have given rise to a new kind of media consumer who rarely gives their full attention to any one media channel. Rather they give ‘continuous partial attention’ to a number of different streams.”

In traditional media such as TV, advertising is suffering from both reduced budgets and a fear of offending. It seems we’re more comfortable playing it safe, by looking and acting similar to other brands and continuing to focus on using differentiation as our competitive advantage.

It’d be nice to think that there was one simple solution to all of these problems. The trouble is that when we solve one problem it often reveals new ones. These often become unnecessary distractions that steer us away from the real job that needs to be done.

So is complexity inevitable or is there another way?

‘Function comes first.’ Says Dave Trott, ‘First you start with the job we’ve got to do.’

In this excellent talk, Trott uses the principle of the Bahaus movement, form follows function, to help remind marketers that despite the changes and challenges we’re all facing, the job we have to do has remained the same.

Too often in advertising, be it creative or media, function is either an afterthought or completely misconstrued.

Function requires that we first understand the job to be done and then look at how the form can help us to achieve that.

The function of advertising is to sell. That’s ultimately the purpose, directly or indirectly, of any marketing communication.

When we talk specifically about advertising, we know that as Stephen King demonstrated, “the role of advertising is not so much to increase sales, as to increase saleability.”

It's an important distinction and it should influence how we approach our work.

Thanks to decades of marketing science aiding the rise of an evidence-based approach to marketing, there’s now a growing call for marketers to reassess many of the assumptions they’ve had.

One of the leaders behind this call, Professor Byron Sharp, believes that, ‘No marketing activity, including innovation, should be seen as a goal in itself, its goal is to hold on to or improve mental and physical availability.’

Understanding how mental availability functions then is vital to getting the best value out of our marketing dollars.

Sharp defines mental availability as, ’the propensity of the brand to be salient in buying situations.’

So in a noisy complex world, the form we should seek, is one that helps to build and refresh brand salience.

The form should include a brand’s distinctive assets as this is the part that helps advertising to perform its function.

The follow up to Sharp’s How Brands Grow, goes further:

‘Distinctiveness is the brand’s identity and how it is recognised (over competitors) and includes any sensory element that triggers the brand (visual, auditory, smell, touch). Distinctiveness is not why you buy something but how you know what brand it is, or how to find the brand.’

The stronger a brand’s identity is, the greater the chance of forming relevant memories.

The understanding of distinctive brand assets (how they should be created and used) is something that marketers should be focusing on in every brief to their agencies. In turn, advertising agencies should be owning the maintenance of these assets, regardless of their channel specialisations.

This is one way, amongst all of the complexity, that agencies can truly be adding value to their client’s brands.

And whilst this helps to simplify the job to be done, it doesn't make it an easy one.


So in a noisy complex world, the form we should seek, is one that helps to build and refresh brand salience.


We must consistently use our brand's distinctive assets. We must also do so using creative that is both fresh and memorable.

And as marketers gain trust in their agencies, trust that the function is at the forefront of their process, they can give their agencies the creative freedom to build work that will be memorable. 

There will always be times where agencies can provide clever solutions to their brands business problems, but over the long term the one job that must always be achieved is ‘winning the battle for memory freshness.’

Strong creative will help to get attention but that attention must then be used to link the brand to relevant buying situations.

A brand’s distinctive assets help it to fulfill this function. So when it comes to increasing brand salience it's the distinctiveness that matters.

The distinctiveness is the message.