The 3 Causes of Sameness in B2B Marketing – and How to Avoid Them
94% of businesses worldwide delude themselves that they are differentiated from their competitors. Solving this problem will dramatically improve commercial business performance.
But what causes this sameness, and what steps can you take right now to avoid it?
The problem of sameness
The 'Sea of Sameness' is a common business problem across many diverse sectors. It indicates a lack of meaningful perceived difference between your value propositions and brand compared to your competitors.
Avoiding the Sea of Sameness means addressing two key marketing tasks. The leading marketing professor and industry voice, Mark Ritson, describes these tasks as "differentiation, and its more superficial, extrovert cousin, called distinctiveness".
Discussing these concepts in his 2019 Marketing Week article, he explains:
- Differentiation is ensuring the relevance and value of the proposition to the customer.
- Distinctiveness is grabbing customer attention, cutting through competitive noise.
Sameness is a lack of differentiation and distinctiveness - and it is very common.
Look at the brands that emulate Apple, or the car brands that followed the design of the Audi A5. Sameness happens when the best practice which brings initial success, soon becomes bland practice with a damaging effect on long-term commercial performance. Indeed, academic studies show that it is only through effective differentiation strategies that a positive and enduring effect on performance can be achieved.
So, what causes the Sea of Sameness? In the research we conducted with business leaders from around the world, it became clear that there were three inter-related things are going on:
- Strategic herding
- Corporate branding and conformity
- Lack of professional competence
As markets develop, company solutions converge over time and start to look alike in terms of products, services and marketing communications. A sort of best practice emerges that is based on the tried and tested factors that bring results.
These recipes for success then become taken for granted or become ‘the way things are done in this market sector’.
Philipp Natterman called this ‘strategic herding’. In his research on German wireless telecommunications service providers between 1993 and 1998, he found that strategic herding led to copied pricing, sales, product, and marketing strategies, which ultimately resulted in a price war and a 50% drop in industry margins.
'Herd instinct' is a mentality that results in blindly compliant decision-making and causes people to think and act in the same way as most other companies in that sector. Herding also stifles entrepreneurial thinking inside the company, such as rule-breaking mindsets or challenger behaviour, and crushes originality, unconventionality, and innovation.
So, as Seth Godin points out, if you can’t tell your customer what is remarkable about your company or give them a reason to buy from you rather than your competitors, you will remain simply as one of the herd.
Corporate branding and conformity
The concept of corporate branding and value propositions are closely related. For anyone trained in marketing, it might seem that corporate branding is a no-brainer, but it can create trouble for your business.
Whilst value propositions concern themselves with the pursuit of differentiation, corporate branding is preoccupied with communicating what the institution believes is different about itself - grounded in its corporate values and aspirations, in other words, 'what we stand for’.
This inside-out approach to marketing can lead to rather bland and cliched self-representations of organizations presenting themselves as ‘the best’, ‘world-class’ or ‘leading’, rather than focusing on a specific response to the challenges its customers face.
The real risk of mindlessly applying corporate branding to B2B companies is the conformity trap. This the situation where "despite an organization’s ambition to present its corporate brand as unique and differentiated, the exact opposite ends up occurring" (Antorini and Schultz 2005).
According to Antorini and Schultz, there are several factors combined which contribute to organizations getting caught in the conformity trap:
- Conformity is unconscious - it is an unthinking habit. Conformity is an elephant in a room that people intuitively know is there and avoid talking about.
- The uniqueness paradox - despite the urge to differentiate, organizations use similar values to describe themselves.
- Leadership is prone to narcissism - Senior executives can lack humility and delude themselves into believing no one can ever be as good as they are.
- Management is prone to groupthink - Centralized micro-management and control of corporate communications means attention to the needs of specific customers is downplayed.
- Leadership is locked into path dependency - Companies stick to a course of action despite evidence from customers suggesting it needs to change, creating a disrupted or blocked flow of customer insight, rather than learning from customers.
- Management is organized to resist 'heresy' - Any challenges to the corporate branding approach are often actively suppressed. The need to respond to different customer contexts that require unique solutions and communication is downplayed. Inconsistency is treated as a problem, and so signals for change are trivialized into mere anecdotal chatter.
Is B2B sameness caused by business schools?
Most marketing case studies in many business schools are B2C.
In B2C marketing, the importance of one message and one corporate identity is emphasized. For example, The Walmart Way, Footlocker ‘We’ and the ubiquitous Nike, Starbucks, Coca Cola Apple, and Virgin examples.
However, many business and marketing students will eventually work in B2B. So, are they being taught the right approaches?
The context of B2B marketing is different; high value of purchases, complexity of decision making, length of time to get a decision, idiosyncratic needs of different customers at different times.
So, educating people about the idea of brand consistency and singular brand identity, with B2C examples, produces a mistaken belief in the efficacy of generic corporate branding. University-qualified marketers simply manage brands the way they have been taught and that might not be appropriate in a B2B setting.
This means many businesses have uncritically taken a traditional approach to corporate branding and abdicated the creation of value propositions to marketing communications specialists, as though creating a differentiated value proposition is just a promotional task following the corporate branding aim to ‘unite the organization’s different elements and types of communication into one single identity expression as if it were one ‘body’ (hence corporate) (Waerass 2008:208).
In the context of B2B marketing where firms supply different sectors, different customers, and different decision-making units, the idea of having 'one voice’ corporate branding and that they should communicate a single and consistent identity, needs to be challenged.
Feedback from key accounts and sales teams in B2B should not be dismissed as anecdotal, sales conversations are the stuff of insightful customer relationships and often the weak signals of important changes.
Lack of professional competence
Herding and corporate branding are just the first level causes of sameness. Herding, conformity, and blind adherence to corporate branding rules are not simply things that happen on their own. They happen because of people - someone has a responsibility here.
Pick up any marketing management textbook and look up differentiation, it will point you to a couple of paragraphs at most telling you what it is and why companies need it to succeed. This is typically followed by some straightforward advice on conducting market research, segmenting customers by their psychological characteristics, behaviours and benefits sought.
These books provide you with every best practice marketing analysis and decision-making framework there is. And that is where the problem of the sea of sameness lies!
There is absolutely nothing in the textbooks about just how difficult it is to make differentiation happen in practice and the sorts of real-world organizational challenges and obstacles that can get in the way.
It was clear when we spoke to many business leaders, these challenges were:
- Articulating the essence of what makes you truly different isn't easy - it takes time, energy and commitment.
- Technical-product inertia diverts energy and attention from real differentiation work.
- Lack of deep customer insight dilutes differentiation effectiveness.
- The bigger the company is, the tougher the job of differentiation gets.
As one of our interviewees so aptly said: “It is one of the most puzzling things I’ve seen in my career. Brilliant marketers walk into the room, yet their messaging falls flat or is not differentiated. How can someone so smart and disciplined come up with something so bland?”
The six human drivers of sameness
1. The comfort blanket of success
Success breeds complacency and hubris; misplaced confidence in the company’s ability to keep winning. The comfort blanket of success creates conditions where executives believe they are on top of the job, so they expect few, if any, surprises from competitors and the way customers buy.
2. Risk aversiveness to try something new
Successful suppliers operate from an ‘if it isn’t broke don’t fix it’ attitude, which leans towards incremental rather than revolutionary product-service development.
This leaves them vulnerable to challengers disrupting the market with sometimes radically new ways of doing things - like the way Uber changed the taxi business.
3. Inexperienced executives
The mindset of the inexperienced executive is one that thinks 'if it works fo the competition, it will work for me', preferring to copy success rather than try something and fail.
4. Inward looking executives
Some marketers judge their success by how well they project managed their marketing campaigns and agency rather than how well they understood what the customers need, rarely engaging directly with the sales team or with their boots on the ground interacting with customers.
5. Being locked in the organization's mindset
In his book Images of Organization, Gareth Morgan calls this a ‘Psychic Prison’. It is the dominant view, or paradigm of the company, which is typically set by the CEO and leadership team.
In a Psychic Prison, you are locked into traditional ways of thinking about your business and find it hard to take on new ideas and points of view.
This view from one of our research participants might be familiar to you: “I think people can become institutionalized. The more you work in a particular environment, the more you become part of it.”
The attitude here is ‘I’ll copy the competition and just tweak it a bit’. It's a ‘couldn’t care less’ attitude that seeks shortcuts and easy gains, indicating a lack of employee engagement.
So, what can you take away from this to avoid swimming in the Sea of Sameness?
- Understand the issues your customers are facing, find evidence to support it and think about what your company can offer to solve it.
- Map where your value proposition skill set is (you can use the competency maps and self-assessment tool in Stand-out Marketing to find where you are).
- Develop your high-level competency.