At first sight, this infographic is so shameful it should make any self-respecting ad person want to crawl into his den with his tail between his legs.

It's a map showing how consumers perceive different financial brands. They're all spending hundreds of millions of dollars on advertising to explain why they're different, and why consumers should choose them over their competitors - and yet consumers just think they're all basically the same.

I got into an argument about this subject last week, over on Ad Contrarian, where I said that differentiation was hard to achieve, in today's era of product parity.

And a B2B guy called Tim Orr took me to task.

"In my opinion," he wrote, "'product parity' is mostly an excuse used by lazy ad people to justify not doing their homework. I once heard a talk by a guy who had made his living selling chemically pure sulfuric acid to industrial customers. There's no greater parity than that! And yet, somehow, he managed to differentiate his offer enough to beat his competition. Every product, every offering is different from every other. Find that difference and exploit it!" 

Unfortunately I'm not aware of the solution that Tim's acid salesman devised.

But I'm not sure I agree that laziness is the factor at play here. In my experience, ad people usually do put in the effort to find out everything about the product, and uncover differences. It's more of a deliberate decision not to use them.

Fallon probably discovered that Sony Bravia TV's have a special TLX-3000 chip in them or something, but decided it would be more effective to do a beautiful and emotive ad on a generic quality of colour TVs - great colour. Similarly, John Lewis has differentiators, but the agency has for the last few years been going with a generic 'emotion of Christmas' message, and it's leading to great work, sales are up, etc. Budweiser is brewed slightly differently (using rice) but consumers don't really care about that, and a generic fun/ socialising message ('Wassup') worked pretty well.

Maybe ad people have instinctively realised that product differences don't matter.

Martin Weigel, the Head of Planning at W&K Amsterdam and writer of the excellent Canalside View blog, has long argued that differentiation is pointless.

"Positioning theory argues that brands must develop and maintain  points of differentiation and uniqueness," he writes. "And who has not been in a strategy meeting which has centered around what our brand can ‘own’?  Yet the data repeatedly shows that if a characteristic matters in a category, it is shared by brands. Indeed, brands share characteristics more so than they exhibit marked differences."

Instead of trying to achieve differentiation, Martin argues we should just aim for salience. And hey, if one of the world's leading planners says that our objective should simply be to come up with some cool ads, then who am I to argue with him?

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