We loved it until we hated it—until we loved it again.

Branding & Optimal Distinctiveness Theory

Holy shit. Have you heard Justin Timberlake’s Can’t Stop the Feeling?

People, disco is back.

And by that we mean back again.

If you’re above a certain age, one of the last things you and the rest of the world agreed upon regarding 70’s disco was that it sucked.

But, the truth is, it actually didn’t. And really, neither did any of its several revivals since.

The original Disco evolved from funk, soul, pop and salsa. None of those suck. The early adopters came from the club scene and included a cross section of the gay, African American, Italian American and Latino communities.

Disco was a kick-in-the-ass answer to the social malaise of the early 70’s, which followed the incendiary late 60’s. And for the communities listed above (and plenty other people) it was as empowering as it was fun.

No, disco didn’t suck—until it did. And then didn’t again.

The question is why?

The answer might be this: It just got too big. Trends (and brands) that get too big, will eventually begin to see a decent (and sometimes catastrophic) level of rejection.

Bigness dilutes in two important ways: First, quality drops off (listen to “Ring My Bell” by Anita Ward ). And second, when everyone loves something, then loving that something is no longer a unique way of being. It begins to say nothing about who you are as an individual.

It’s called Optimal Distinctiveness Theory.

One aspect of the theory goes like this: People will seek the balance between inclusion (group identity) and distinctiveness (individual identity). And for the most part, most people don’t like it when that balance gets out-of-whack.

When something gets too big (the group) it loses its ability to positively drive personal distinction (the individual) and so we abandon it. Sometimes permanently, sometimes just for a while.

Optimal Distininctiveness TheoryResurrected brands, like PBR, are the proof-point for that “sometimes just for awhile” scenario (and it’s always just for a while).

Translated from social science-speak, the theory states that we love, say, Taylor Swift until “too many” people love her—then we hate her until enough of us hate her, so that it becomes safe enough to recognize her genius.

And so on.

Any good branding professional will offer the basic advice of being distinctive—but do many have the courage (or understanding) to actually explore and discuss sameness?

Sameness (represented by the group identity or brand tribe) is the angel and devil; it can drive more inclusiveness and growth—until it doesn’t.

Solid brand strategy—especially for start-ups—needs to also consider the relativity of a brand and its position. Is there a drafting effect that can be leveraged? How is the brand the same, but different?

Inversely, solid brand strategy—especially for larger, established brands—needs to consider strategies to create growth that does not overinflate sameness and reduce distinction, because the tribe has become so large that it’s diffused.

Where is the brand, relative to the delta of optimal distinction? And if we’re getting too big, what can we do about that?

The whole game, in other words, is a balancing act. And that balance has strategic implications for both building and sustaining brands.

And for the record, I love disco—at least until I don’t. And then I will again.

Note: The theory of Optimal Distinctiveness was introduced to me during a Friday evening Double Mountain Brewery Beers & Theories back-n-forth with my good friend and former creative partner Brian Hennessey. Brian’s ever-curious mind, sharp intellect and ability to connect things is worth a million times the number of beers I hav

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