Cultural norms beats distinctiveness

I say, ”Cultural norms beats distinctiveness.“

I’ve read about distinctiveness and especially “meaningless distinctiveness” (e.g., Romaniuk & Gaillard, 2007; Romaniuk, Sharp & Ehrenberg, 2007; Romaniuk & Sharp, 2022).

I appreciate the work of Byron Sharp and Jenni Romaniuk, but I have some issues with the use of ”meaningless“ within the context of branding and marketing. Especially under a 🧠 psychological perspective.

How is “meaningless distinctiveness” to understand?

Brand designers usually put significant effort into pointing out visual concepts with strategic explanations, which, of course, sometimes have their creative origin in them. If the design agency does not want to depend solely on the client’s gut feeling when pitching, a few good (sales) arguments can help here and there to get the new brand design across to the man/woman/x.

How far and how the content-related explanations and backgrounds for the development of the brand identity are actually perceived by consumers and, above all, what influence they have on the success of a brand can be discussed – and that is what Sharp and Romaniuk are doing.

Certainly, all marketing experts agree that distinctiveness is an essential aspect of any good brand, helping it to be identified easily and quickly in the market environment. Because without distinctiveness, there is no recognition. And without recognition, explicit and implicit, formal and content-related, there is no trust building. And trust is one of the central impact factors of every excellent brand.

For the factor “distinctiveness”, the meaning “deposited” in the brand design (e.g., in the form of the purpose or Why by Simon Sinek) does not play a role at first. There I agree with Sharp and Romaniuk also completely.

The sticking point

However, when Byron Sharp and Jenni Romaniuk talk about “meaningless distinctiveness”, the definition “meaningless” is useless from a psychological perspective and misleading.

Why? Simply because we humans construct meaning for any processed stimulus – anytime, anywhere. This includes visual, auditory, tactile, gustatory, olfactory, and interoceptive stimuli. This is how we infer and explain the world to ourselves. Most of these “constructions” are shaped by our cultural and social environment, some are evolutionary or genetically influenced.

When we perceive 👁️ something (e.g., a product), we form an overall picture from the sum of the individual sensory impressions (including logo, shape, color, content) and automatically evaluate this. If this overall picture corresponds to our implicit expectations (which we are usually unable to express explicitly), then we develop tendencies of assimilation; if the overall picture does not correspond to our expectations, we develop tendencies of rejection. This assimilation and contrast effect is context-dependent. This means that the assessment of sensory impressions is NOT the same at all times, everywhere and in all areas.

💥 And this is accurately where it gets tricky for practice. As a brand expert and brand designer, one is well advised to think carefully about which expectations, based on cultural and social norms, are dominant in the specific product category for the product to be “designed”. But this results in another hurdle:

❓How can I know whether I am creating positive expectations and thus approach tendencies in the consumer when choosing distinctive features?
👉🏼 Many practical examples show: Consider empirical psychological research and beyond that, be bold!

Practice shows that many companies have failed with their brands or products due to cultural norms and expectations of their stakeholders (currently Bahlsen in Germany with its packaging redesign introduced in 2021). But also that sometimes it pays to have the courage to break with these very norms.

⚡️ Who of you knows good examples of brands that have broken with norms, which ones have failed?

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