Why Being Interesting Might Be More Important Than Being Different

Part 2: The Implications


“All God does is watch us and kill us when we get boring.

We must never, ever be boring”

 Chuck Palahniuk

Do people needs brands to be different?

While the empirical evidence is not comprehensive and questions still remain, at the very least it should challenge our unwavering certainty and prompt us to question many of our age-old assumptions about how brands and advertising work. For it still represents a sizeable body of data suggesting that people don’t need brands to be differentiated that much in order to buy them. 

In reviewing some of this data, our journey down the rabbit hole in Part One suggested the following: 


When the effect of usage and prototypicality is factored out, brands don’t have exclusive image attributes but share them with other brands.

Knowledge about a brand  - the root of any positioning - is not held uniformly by all buyers. A minority of a brand’s users account for half of brand knowledge, with the remainder spread thinly across the majority of its user base. In other words, while some people know a lot about a brand, most of a brand’s users  will know little.

Far from having fixed perceptions of brands, people’s view of brands are in fact very far fromstable and vary across time. Brands are not ‘things’ in people’s brains, etched in, permanent and enduring. They must be constructed and reconstructed each time from all the myriad of associations in the mind. Whether these associations are evoked and assembled is - like any memory - a matter of cues, circumstances, and indeed luck


When directly asked, the vast majority of people don’t think brands are unique or different


People don’t regard evaluating brands as very important, and don’t spend much cognitive time and energy making purchase decision.

Brands don’t attract different kinds of users.

Brands don’t have exclusive customers - instead, people are quite happy to buy from a repertoire of brands.

All this should get us questioning our unwavering faith in the necessity and value of differentiation, for it suggests that consumers do in fact not need brands to be differentiated to make purchase decisions.

But this is not to suggest that what we do in marketing- and adland has failed, or is without value.  Just that what we make may work differently from what we have tended to assume.

And if it does work differently, then we have might have to redirect at least some of our focus and energy. 

The discovery that brands really aren’t that differentiated, and that the real differences lie in the differences between sub-categories should make us question the value of polishing those brand onions, pyramids keys, etc.  

If people don’t perceive brands to be terribly different, and don’t find that hinders their ability to make purchase decisions, then why do we spend energy fetishizing the one sentence brand benefit? Or agonizing over the precise phrasing of the brand essence (that no consumer will ever see anyway)? Or fiddling about with personality adjectives, and debating with all the wearying enthusiasm of a medieval theologian the difference between ‘modern’ and ‘contemporary’?  If this stuff doesn’t lead to purchase why on earth are we spending precious time and resources on this? 

Facing up to the largely undifferentiated nature of brands should surely liberate us.  As Romaniuk, Sharp and Ehrenberg conclude:

“The consumer behaviour literature has for decades focused on customer perceptions of brands as the main reason why one brand is chosen over others. This emphasis seems misplaced. If buyers of a brand do not think their brand is different or unique, then presumably this is not the reason why they buy it. We need to look elsewhere for explanations of why they buy this brand and not others... The main implication of this research for marketing practice is that marketers do not need to convince buyers that the brand is different in order to get them to buy. This should take a considerable weight off marketer’s shoulders as our data shows that such a task is probably near impossible. Instead marketers need to focus on achieving the things that do make customers buy.”

Salience, fame, and the creation of mental presence

When it comes to “achieving the things that do make customers buy”, if the purpose of all those positionings, all that differentiation, and all those messages and USPs was to ‘persuade’ and ‘convert’ consumers, then this evidence is telling us that is has palpably failed. 

Consider this work. How exactly does it differentiate this brand from all its competitors? How exactly is it saying it’s different, or better? What precisely, is the persuasive message is any of this work imparting about the brand? How does any of this work differentiate the brand from its nearest competitor?


We tend to assume that the primary influence which advertising exerts upon people’s behaviour and choices is differentiation. But there is another by which it works. And which may explain why the empirical evidence casts doubt upon the extent of real, meaningful differentiation.

Contrary to the theory of brand positioning, there is a good amount of evidence which suggests that people don't have to think of a brand as being different to come to buy it. They just have to think of it at all.

This is what Moran (1990) characterized as the creation of ‘mental presence’: “The degree to which a given brand comes to consumers’ minds in the context of a particular purchase occasion or consumption occasion.”

Similarly, Gordon Brown (of Millward Brown fame) suggested that one of the  primary roles of advertising is to make brands ‘interesting’ as they sit there on shelf.

Mental availability or ‘salience’ is much more than just simple top-of-mind awareness, and it’s fair to say that no-one has ‘cracked the code’ on how to define and measure it. Definitions and metrics abound. Indeed in their review of the extensive literature on the subject, Vieceli and Shaw (2011) identify no less than five categories of definition:

Prominence - the prominence of the brand in memory relative to its competitors.

Accessibility - the accessibility of memory content relating to the brand.

Associations - the quantity and quality of associations in the mind.

Order - the degree to which the brand comes to mind in buying or consumption occasions.

Familiarity - the ‘size’ of the brand in one’s mind that allows the brand to come forward in response to recall cues.

Vieceli and Shaw (2011) themselves put forward a definition that whilst pithy, demonstrates the multi-faceted nature of salience:

“The probability that a brand will be recalled early in a consumer’s consideration set, under a variety of situations and via a variety of stimuli, to the exclusion of competing brands.”

This is echoed in the definition put forward by Romanuik and Sharp (2004):

“Brand salience is conceptualized as the propensity of the brand to be thought of in buying situations. This is reflected in the quantity (how many) and the quality (how fresh and relevant) of the network of brand information in memory, or the brand’s ‘share of mind’. This conceptualization is based on buying situations being complex, multi-cue environments, which means that buyers are affected by a range of cues, beyond the product category, when eliciting options... for buying.”

And this obviously doesn’t happen in isolation. All brands must contend with the presence of competing brands who are also vying for linkage to these cues.  Moran provides us with a rather good visualization of quite how complex and multi-dimensional the space in which consumer purchases come to be made really is and in which salience needs to be created:

The perceptual universe.001

Consequently Romanuik and Sharp (2004) suggest that any measure of  salience should:

  • contain a representative range of attributes and cues used to think of brands

  • measure recall/noticing relative to competitors rather than for a single brand independently

  • focus on simply whether the brand is thought of rather than seeking to determine how favorably each brand is judged

This is obviously a more slippery and complex phenomenon to measure than simple top of mind or spontaneous awareness.

Ironically, in their original series of articles on positioning (‘The Positioning Era Cometh’) that appeared in Advertising Age back in 1972,  Ries and Trout seemed to be writing about something rather similiar, arguing that to cope with plenitude of brands available in any category “people have learned to rank products and brands in the mind... for an advertiser to increase his brand preference, he must move up the ladder.”

All this reminds us that the real communications goal is not so-called ‘engagement’, but the creation of vivid memories - and their activation in moments of purchase or consumption. Those who focus only on the so-called ‘engagement’ end of things would be well placed to spend a little more time considering how interactions with marketing content (from the most passive to the most participative) work to build such mental availability, or salience.

Crucially, there is good evidence that salience, interesting-ness or fame works. 

Peter Field (2008) reminds us that analysis of the IPA dataBANK identifies ‘fame’ as the single most effective strategy: “Fame is not simply about generating brand awareness (which turns out to have limited value for most established brands). It is about building word-of-mouth advocacy for the brand – getting it talked about, creating authority for the brand and the sense that it is making most of the running in the category. Fame works – and it makes hard-pressed communications budgets stretch further by getting consumers to do some of the work.”

Creative publicity

The notions of messaging (let alone persuasion) are unsupported by the empirical evidence and help no-one. They simply don’t reflect how people consume communications, and behave. Paul Feldwick and Robert Heath (2008) urge both clients and agencies to “take on board the obvious but oft-denied truth that advertising that contains no 'message', 'proposition' or 'benefits' is not necessarily deficient, and that attempts to impose them or post-rationalise them generally reduce effectiveness.”

And given that people don’t need brands to be differentiated to buy them, it’s been suggested (Ehrenberg et al, 2002) that a better way to think about how advertising works is as ‘creative publicity’ - that is, it works through “publicizing the brand memorably without having to ‘persuade’ people that the brand is better than they thought before”.

The ‘Ehrenberg school’ of marketing science has been criticized in some quarters for suggesting (or at least implying) that the creative solution demanded by growth be dull, mechanistic and unimaginative advertising.  In fairness perhaps it’s too much to expect marketing scientists to be creative experts as well. That said, Ehrenberg et al, (2002) have in fact provided us with a brief and useful taxonomy of the ways in which advertising can publicize a brand. While it is by no means exhaustive, it does demonstrate that in the quest for mental availability, there is by no means a one-size-fits-all creative solution:

The brand as the product

Many advertisements in effect say the brand is an example of the product category. And if we think of brand salience as being the propensity of the brand to be thought of in buying situations, then making this connection is not as facile as might be thought.

Advertising claims (such as “The world’s favourite airline”) may appear to be promises of superiority, but in the light of people’s perceptions of brands and the fact that they still buy other brands as well, in reality they probably simply work as an interesting statement of category membership.

Establishing distinctiveness

Much advertising works to present the brand in some creatively memorable, yet often fairly meaningless way.  Neither mints with holes nor meerkats are relevant or useful in making a purchase decision. But in the quest for salience, they do publicize, magnify and make interesting and memorable a truth about the brand or product (it’s got a hole in it, or it sort of rhymes with ‘market’).

Appealing to emotions

Publicity can appeal to people’s emotions and values. It might not persuade anybody of anything, but it can be intensely memorable. 

Proffering a reason

Ehrenberg et al acknowledge that there is advertising which ostensibly gives people a reason to buy. But again, how it appears to work may not be how it actually works. Thus, most drinkers are unlikely to believe that Carlsberg really is the best lager in the world or that Heineken really does refresh the parts other beers can’t reach. But as they point out, saying ‘Better’ or ‘Best’ keeps the brand in front of the public.

Just because the task might be to build and mainatin salience not differentiation, does not mean that there is not a diversity of creative options and solutions open to us.

The new priorities

If our task is to build both the quantity and the quality of the network of brand information in memory, or the brand’s ‘share of mind’ - to make it salient or interesting in purchase or consumption occasions, then I wonder if we’re going to have to place a rather different emphasis on which inputs we value:

Less brandspeak

Understand the category cues

Embrace and transform the generic

Uncover the network of associations 

Look for points of interest 

Be interested in what people are interested in

Know your competition

Less brandspeak

If people don’t perceive brands to be terribly different, and don’t find that hinders their ability to make purchase decisions, then why do we spend energy fetishizing the one sentence brand benefit? Or agonizing over the precise phrasing of the brand essence (that no consumer will ever see anyway)? Or fiddling about with personality adjectives, and debating with all the wearying enthusiasm of a medieval theologian the difference between ‘modern’ and ‘contemporary’?  If this stuff doesn’t lead to purchase why on earth are we spending precious time and resources on this? 

Given the reality of what people actually think about brands and how actually they behave with them, we would be advised to indulge a little less in brand-speak. And certainly we should beware of over-intellectualizing them. “Brand babble” as Earls (2002)puts it, “can make your head spin.”   Brand insights, brand propositions, brand essences, brand benefits, brand ideals, brand purposes, brand values, brand personalities, brand visions, brand missions, brand archetypes, brand values, brand personality... The list goes on.

The more we talk about The Brand, the more likely we are to become detached from the real issues at hand. How to influence and change people’s behaviours. How to increase sales and revenue. But as Earls argues, once you put The Brand to one side, a whole new vista of opportunity and possibility opens up. You start asking new questions. And you start solving new problems.

The real purpose of all those onions and pyramids is not to create differentiation in the minds of consumers, but to ensure that our efforts build on each other to create strong and vivid memories. They give us a North Star. Without some organizing thought (however we choose to accomplish this) our efforts risk being utterly disconnected - and with this we risk that people’s memory structures must be built from scratch every time, rather than built upon and refreshed.

Understand the category cues

Going back to the definition of brand salience from Romanuik and Sharp (2004) - “the propensity of the brand to be thought of in buying situations”, and remembering that as they put it, buying situations are “complex, multi-cue environments... buyers are affected by a range of cues, beyond the product category, when eliciting options... for buying” should encourage us to devote as much effort understanding the full gamut of purchase triggers cues. 

It’s all very well and good being interesting and vivid, but that interest and vividness must be relevant to buying situations. For if we fail to attach brand memories to purchase cues our brand is unlikely to be thought when people are making purchase or consumption choices.

Any category understanding needs to encompass not just not people’s consciously-experienced wants, but the influence of a whole plenitude of stimuli. And given that much of so-called consumer decision-making is in fact invisible to consumers themselves, we cannot rely on them as our only witnesses. Or indeed as reliable witnesses. Methods other than direct questioning must be embraced. 

Embrace and transform the generic

We might want to call a halt to debating what is and is not ‘ownable’ for a brand, and what is and is not merely ‘generic’.

Indeed, if brand salience is the propensity of the brand to be thought of (at all) in buying or consumption situations, we’ll need to spend more more time thinking about how we can transform what might have been dismissed as generic category motivations or undifferentiated product attributes into something not differentiated but truly interesting, memorable and of course attached to our brand. 

Uncover the network of associations

In contrast to the pseudo science of marketingland, science teaches us that memory works through the creation of connections. And if a brand is simply a set of memories, then all it is is a set of connections and associations in the brain. We form and access memories of brands by creating and activating networks of associations.

So we’ll need to do a better job at understanding what the map of people’s existing mental associations around a brand looks like.  And that certainly means a less naive approach to analyzing brand image data. Although given how little brands differ and how stable perceptions are at aggregate level, we could probably spend less time and money poring over them.

Look for points of interest

If we look for attributes to ‘own’, we will be disappointed. Worse, we’ll waste our time and money. Positive brand image deviations as we’ve seen, will tend to be small. But while they may not be sources of significant differentiation, they may give us valuable starting points for developing communication strategies rooted in existing truths and perceptions about the brand.

Be interested in what people are interested in

The argument in favour of mental availability or salience doesn’t negate the importance of relevance (I’ll avoid saying ‘insight’). Quite the opposite in fact. Rather than spend all that time noodling brand onions and agonizing over the largely irrelevant nuance of ‘difference’ between our brand and the competition, we should be spending far more time thinking about what people are interested in, and work back from that to our brand.

Lawrence Green (2007) put it best: “We in advertising tend to start with our message and work outward. We are spending too much time on what we want to say, rather than what people want to hear. Maybe we should flip the traditional planning process. From message-out planning to audience-back strategy. Dispense with propositions and focus on more thoroughly understanding what people are into. Spielberg said he wanted to make everyone in a cinema feel joy. Then worked back to ET. What would we make if our development process worked this way around?"

And that demands a more rigorous, nuanced, and imaginative approach than all the psycho-babble, or patronizing simplifications that run through too much of so-called consumer segmentation work.

Know your competition

Recognizing that we’re in the battle for salience and that we’re by no means alone in it, demands that we pay greater attention to the competitive communications environment - both in terms of its content and effects - than I suspect we do at the moment.  If this is the key battle that we’re fighting, then perhaps all those endless and often insight-free competitive reviews that invariably get handed off to the less experienced amongst us should assume far greater strategic importance for us all. What are the dominant codes and stories? Where is there space to be interesting?

The challenge of being interesting and the opportunity of resistance

Being genuinely interesting is hard. Most people don’t actually buy our brand very often at all. Most people aren’t devoted to it. Most people don’t know very much about it. And most people don’t treat learning about brands as very important.  

Not only do people not buy us that often or know that much about us. When it comes to the output of marketing- and adland, the truth of the matter is that people don’t really expect that much from us. Most of what our industry puts out into the world lies somewhere between being risible or being just plain unremarkable. Few brands have led consumers to expect anything very interesting from them. Small wonder then that for the most part, people aren’t waiting or looking for what we make. For the most part, most people just aren’t that interested in brands.

All of this is very different from the mental image of the ‘engaged’ consumer. And while it’s arguably a crueler, more unforgiving world out there than the comforting rhetoric of ‘engagement’ suggests, none of this should prompt fits of morbid anxiety or professional self-doubt. It doesn’t mean that we’ve failed. And it certainly doesn’t mean that what we do is utterly irrelevant. 

For creativity of any form needs some form of resistance to ignite and inspire it, whether that’s the resistance of materials, media, form, genre or inherited expectations and practices. And so just as the engraver needs the resistance of the plate, we need the recognition that most people in the real world just aren’t that interested. This, not attention, is the real barrier to our success. And that’s a far, far bigger hurdle to conquer.  It demands we find ways of being part of what people genuinely find interesting, rather than merely talk about ourselves. It demands that we insist on that rarest of things - excellence. And it compels us to maintain our intolerance of mediocrity. 

That’s surely a more exciting and ultimately more creatively liberating starting point for developing communications than assuming that people are ready, willing and in the market to be ‘engaged’. Whatever that means.

The opportunity that this perspective opens up is vast. Instead of the deadening and stifling assumptions that we must persuade people, that they’re looking for reasons to buy, that we must offer something that differentiates us from the competition, we are now set upon a properly imaginative journey, to find what is interesting, exciting and memorable that we can connect in the memory with our brand.

We are not hidden persuaders. Or even partially glimpsed persuaders. For we never we were in the business of persuasion. Nor are we in the message business. We are publicists. And our true contribution lies in the transformation of the generic, the un-ownable, and the otherwise meaningless into something compelling, interesting, memorable, and yes, useful for consumers as they make thei rpurchase decisions. And if that’s not magic, I don’t know what is.


Mark Earls, Welcome to the Creative Age: Bananas, Business, and the Death of Marketing, 2002

Andrew Ehrenberg, Neil Barnard, John Scriven, ‘Differentiation or Salience’, Journal of Advertising Research, November/December 1997

Andrew Ehrenberg, ‘Repetitive advertising and the consumer’, Journal of Advertising Research, Vol. 40, No. 6, November/December 2000

Andrew Ehrenberg, Neil Barnard, Rachel Kennedy, Helen Bloom, ‘Brand Advertising As Creative Publicity’, Journal of Advertising Research: Vol. 42, No. 4, July/August 2002 

Peter Field, ‘The creation of buzz and fame’, Admap, April 2008, Issue 493

Chris Forrest, ‘Brand Onions and other barriers to creativity, Market Leader, Spring 2007, Issue 36

Lawrence Green, ‘In search of the new creative idea’, Campaign 28th September 2007

William Moran, ‘Brand Presence And The Perceptual Frame’, Journal of Advertising Research, October/November 1990

Jenni Romanuik, Byron Sharp, ‘Conceptualizing and measuring brand salience’, Marketing Theory, Volume 4(4), 2004

Julian Viecli, Robin Shaw, ‘A Model of Brand Salience’, in Mark Uncles, ed. Perspectives on Brand Management, 2011

Byron Sharp, How Brands Grow