Customer-based brand equity theory, the dominant theory of branding, holds that unique associations are the main source of brand differentiation. However, a myopic focus on unique associations may have adverse effects on important brand variables.
The purpose of this study is to expand the notion of differentiation by developing and testing a typology of brand benefit differentiation. Drawing on network theories of human memory, the research develops a threefold typology of brand benefit differentiation.
Using brand concept maps a comparison of the association maps of four international brands we show instances of all three types of benefit differentiation – categorical (uniqueness), graded and structural benefit differentiation. To test the effects of the different types of benefit differentiation, we used path analyses. The tests of effects revealed that categorical benefit differentiation (uniqueness) had negative effects, whereas structural and graded differentiation had positive effects on benefit evaluation and brand attachment, respectively. These findings suggest that other types of benefit differentiation are more important than uniqueness.
The new typology opens new opportunities for the differentiation of brands. Brand managers should avoid a myopic focus on categorical differentiation (uniqueness). Rather, they should analyze networks of benefit associations in detail in search of all three types of differentiation identified in this research. Managers should also consider all three types of benefit differentiation in efforts to strengthen the brand positioning.