Two Factors Limiting Product and Brand Differentiation

If you’re like us, you’ve noticed that design differentiation between brands of like products seems to be declining. Looking at the side profile of cars, for example, you would be hard-pressed to identify the brand. Same for toasters, lawnmowers, blenders, websites and even company and product logos. Commoditization generally is not good business strategy. So, why, then, is this happening? We think it is driven by two primary factors:


A Focus on Product Effectiveness and Quality Improvement

One of the big factors responsible for declining differentiation between products seems to be the market pressure to make those products ever more effective and/or higher quality. For example, in order to increase fuel efficiency of cars, designers seek to increase aerodynamic efficiency of their vehicles, which, in turn, pushes product design to converge across brands as there is only one set of physics involved. Of course, rules and regulations around pedestrian safety also contribute to this homogenization in design.  Similarly, a focus on legibility of logos on smaller screens (aka smartphones and tablets) is limiting logo design. In fact, whenever there is a finite set of variables that define a product’s effectiveness and quality, brand differentiation through design will suffer if the primary emphasis is on the former.

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Trend Following, Risk Aversion and Lack of Innovation

Other categories, like the aforementioned toasters, lawnmowers and blenders, suffer from what might mildly be put as a fixation on familiarity. Other than maybe some color choices, these products all pretty much look the same. Yet, an emphasis on design can be differentiating and add value to both product and brand. Consider, for example, how Bang & Olufsen stands out among stereo systems.

Essentially, the idea of “just be yourself” has evolved into “be yourself, but also conform to what everyone else is doing.” This shift reflects a societal pressure to stay current and trendy. It’s unclear who’s driving this mindset — is it actual consumer desire or social media and influencers homogenizing tastes?

In the past decade, personal communication devices, such as cell phones and, most recently, the Apple Watch and the like, have made traditional mechanical watches practically unnecessary despite centuries of history. But, as far as design goes, your choices are black mirrored rectangles and circles, with some opportunity for design differentiation in the wristbands. While smartwatches are very appealing, mechanical watches have endured as symbols of style, craftsmanship, and tradition, making them timeless accessories. More to the point, the level of design differentiation among mechanical watches is very high and no small part of why mechanical watches have not been vanquished by smartwatches and are holding up rather well.

A lack of product differentiation often forces brand owners to differentiate in other ways, including creating immersive brand experiences or pushing differentiation into marketing (how about those Geico and Progressive ads?).

In the spirit of zigging, when others are zagging, brand owners should take advantage of the convergence pressures on product design to step back and actively build in differentiation—even if it means a slight reduction in effectiveness or expected familiarity. The likelihood is high that customers won’t care about either and will appreciate the distinctive product design instead.

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Christopher Nagle
Chris has more than 20 years of design and art direction experience with work that spans multiple industries and areas of application. His drive to uncover what sparks the motivations of his target audiences is what has led to a career of not only award-winning work, but work that moves the needle for his clients. Chris’ extensive background working with researchers and strategists has also given him a strong understanding of how to ensure that visual communications are true to the brand while reaching the right audience in the intended manner.

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