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Is brand relevance more important than brand differentiation?

Most business leaders and marketers aim to differentiate their brand from those of their competitors. It’s commonly viewed that differentiation is the key to success of the brand and its profitability. Others however,would argue it’s more important for your brand to be relevant to your customers rather than be differentiated over competitors.

As markets shift and change, certain products and categories of products and the appeal consumers have to those products will shift and change. And in an age where everything is being disrupted that change is happening at an ever increasing rate.

‘Brand relevance’ refers to the emotional connections and personal usefulness a brand has in relation to its customers. It underpins the level of loyalty, trust and engagement a customer is likely to feel in relation to the brand and its products.The concept was developed by David Aaker, organisational psychologist and theorist, who is vice-chairman of American consultancy and brand management agency Prophet.

It’s a significant challenge for enterprises to maintain brand relevance over time. Lifestyles change, customers’ behaviours and expectations are in constant flux. Nimble startups are constantly emerging to take advantage of the latest trends and unexploited opportunities in the market.

Brand Relevance vs Brand Differentiation

For some, relevance is far more critical than brand differentiation. Elliot Schreiber CEO of Brand and Reputation Management states: “Relevance is more important than Differentiation: Business strategists, Marketers and brand managers have been fixated on differentiation. Customers, however, are drawn to relevance – the things that “connect with them emotionally”.

That sort of makes sense. If customers have no interest in your products and believe you offer no value to them, then it doesn’t matter if you’re different to your competitors. Your brand will be unprofitable and fade into obscurity.

But this, to a certain extent, is an argument against being different for the pure sake of being different, rather than questioning the importance of differentiation. Jacquie Baker, the branding strategist for Silverlane, elaborates, “brand differentiation is about offering something different that is also meaningful to your customers. To be more relevant to your customers and to emotionally connect with them, you need to differentiate what you do and how you do it. It’s hard to build an emotional connection if you are perceived as being the same as everybody else and everything you do is simply a commodity.”

Taking the risk to be different

Baker believes that brands that don’t change or try to be different will not stay relevant. She highlights, ”We live in a world of constant and disruptive change. Customers expect more and more from the organisations and brands they do business with. Brands do not have the luxury of standing still for any length of time. To survive, brands need to differentiate themselves from their competitors while meeting the changing needs and expectations of their customers.”.

Don’t let your brand stagnate, advises Baker. Be willing to take risks and search for new ways to engage customers and improve the experience they have with your brand. “Successful brands stay relevant by being bold, constantly moving forward, innovative and disrupting the status quo. They don’t follow the pack nor allow their past success to become a legacy that acts like a millstone around their neck.”

Ultimately, ‘brand relevance’ needs to work hand in hand with ‘brand differentiation’. They are not two opposing philosophies, but two aspects of a single approach to building a strong and successful brand.

Mark Atterby

Mark Atterby has 18 years media, publishing and content marketing experience.