Distinction vs. Differentiation: It’s Time to Stop Asking for the Impossible

(This article previously appeared on LinkedIn.)

Last weekend, the American Quilter’s Society displayed hundreds of hand-made quilts at the Lancaster County Convention Center. The show was visually overwhelming, featuring craftsmen (actually, mostly craftswomen) from around the U.S. and abroad.

Each of these artists could rightfully claim their works were one-of-a-kind – yet, that distinction alone carries no financial value. All handmade items are unique. It is the level of craftsmanship that differentiates one quilt from another, and the details of that craftsmanship can raise the value of a quilt by thousands of dollars.

Though the words “hand-made” and “one-of-a-kind” will be spoken innumerable times at such an event, they do not constitute a Unique Selling Proposition (USP).

Each quilt stood apart from the other entries because of some characteristic – perhaps the colors, the combination of patterns, the detailed stitching, the applique process, the binding technique, the reputation of the artist, and so on. These are the qualities that make quilts distinct. And distinction is key.

The USP theory was developed in the late 1950s and spread like measles through the ‘60s and ‘70s, embedding itself into the very fabric of our language. Rosser Reeves, an executive from the Ted Bates agency, had noticed that newspaper ads were more likely to be effective when they emphasized some special characteristic or capability of a product. Such USPs could come to include features like a sensor that detects whether the laundry is dry, or a sunroof that retracts at the push of a button. These characteristics helped one product stand out from the crowd and often motivated buyers to choose the “unique” products, perhaps because they saved time or work, or perhaps because they symbolized status.

But the manufacturers and distributors of these products quickly realized their uniqueness would be short-lived, as competitors sprung up with “me-too” offerings – sometimes even in the same selling season. And that was 50 years ago. Imagine the sheer improbability that any organization could claim a unique selling proposition today.

Let’s face facts. Your product (or service) offerings are probably not unique, and if they are, they won’t be for long. A sustainable USP is no longer possible. But distinction is.

In a recent Marketing Week article, Mark Ritson (@markritson) explains the difference: “When a brand is distinctive it looks like itself and ‘jumps out’ at the consumer when they encounter it or consider a purchase. When a brand is differentiated it successfully convinces consumers that its offer is significantly different to those of the competition on a range of intended associations or attributes.”

Ritson goes on to suggest there is “a mountain of evidence to suggest that distinctiveness did drive brand growth and differentiation rarely mattered.” Ooh, bad news for Rosser Reeves and the USP theory… but good news for marketers, manufacturers, educators, charitable organizations and the like: Distinction is not only possible, it drives revenue.

For almost two decades MarketPoint has held the position that, in order to compete effectively, each brand must identify and exploit its point of distinction. We feel so strongly, in fact, that we trademarked the phrase “What’s your point of distinction?”®

Sadly, that doesn’t stop other marketing pundits from extolling the necessity of a USP and a theory that should have died from natural causes sometime between WWII and Vietnam.

Finding your “point of distinction” is possible. We know; we’ve been helping clients articulate their brands for almost 20 years – in this century, not the last.

So, “what’s your point of distinction?”®

By the way, if you’d like to attend one of the remaining 2019 AQS quilt shows, you can find them here:

  • Paducha, KY (Spring show), April 24–27
  • Grand Rapids, MI, August 21–24
  • Paducha, KY (Fall show), September 11–14
  • Charleston, SC, September 25–27


“What’s your point of distinction?”® is a Registered Trade Mark of MarketPoint LLC.