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What Is Radical Differentiation and How Can It Improve Your Brand?

5 min read
Radical Differentiation

For as long as there’s been business, there’s been brand, helping customers choose one company over the other.

But these days, customers have more choices than ever, and moreover, they have better means of learning about and evaluating those choices. In turn, it’s increasingly easy for companies to get lost in the sea of sameness among their competitors.

Standing out and creating a unique impression in the customer’s mind — that’s a challenge for any company, especially one in its early stages. So, what’s a brand to do?

To stand out, brands can’t just be different. They must be radically different. Or, in other words, they need to practice radical differentiation.

What is radical differentiation?

Radical differentiation is just what it sounds like: The art of being radically different from your competition. Coined by Marty Neumier, the author of “Zag,” the term means out-positioning the competition, eschewing industry expectations, and being unafraid to do things differently.

In other words, where your competitors may zig, you must zag.

Now, “doing things differently,” doesn’t mean simply having a primary color that’s different from your competitors. It doesn’t mean taking a cheeky tone in your messaging while playing it safe everywhere else. We mean building your brand from the ground up in a way that’s at odds with how your competitors do it — or even approaching your category in a totally different way.

Here are just a couple examples of brands who’ve found success in their radical differentiation.

Liquid Death

What comes to mind when you think of the bottled water aisle at your supermarket? Probably images of peaceful mountains, idyllic valleys, and gentle streams. Surely a lot of blue. And definitely a whole lot of plastic.

Liquid Death launched in the late 2010s, upending every traditional idea consumers had about bottled water, including the very vessel it came in. That’s because Liquid Death water isn’t sold in plastic bottles; it comes in aluminum “tallboy” cans that wouldn’t be out of place at a college party. The punk-rock aesthetic extends beyond the product design to the visual and verbal identities of the brand, which feature skulls and messaging around “murdering” thirst.

It’s easy to see how Liquid Death radically differentiates itself from the brands it’s up against. And that’s paid off for the brand, which raised more than an estimated $130 million in sales in its first three years — a number that took Monster four years and Celsius 12 years to reach.


When Surfe approached Focus Lab for a rebrand, the brand was in the process of moving away from its former name, Leadjet. But that wasn’t the only thing it wanted to leave behind. Offering a tool to help sales reps be more efficient in capturing and organizing lead data, the brand looked across the CRM landscape and saw a lot of ZZZ.

In other words, there was ample opportunity for radical differentiation.

For its rebrand, Surfe took inspiration from surfer culture, leaning hard into brand attributes of free, bold, and playful. With an exuberant color palette, vibey photographic style, and fun line language that evokes the shapes of waves, Surfe’s new visual brand matches its laid-back, personal verbal tone.

These elements are unique among Surfe’s competitive landscape, and they’ve helped the brand to stand out and make an impression in the minds of both customers and investors: Soon after rolling out its new brand, Surfe raised €4 million in seed funding.

Why imitation doesn’t always work in branding

“Imitation is the highest form of flattery.”

“Great minds think alike.”

“Good artists copy. Great artists steal.”

Those phrases might be true in some situations, but not always when it comes to branding. Just search “ChatGPT” in your phone’s app store and you’ll find dozens of logos that are just different enough to skirt intellectual property infringements but not unique enough to stand out in any way.

Of course, copycat behavior in branding isn’t always so extreme. Subpar differentiation can also look like using a color palette that’s similar to your competitors or using the same words they do because “it’s what customers expect.”

At best, this can feel lazy to customers. At worst, it can appear deceptive, which is the very opposite of what a brand should be. Once a customer feels deceived, it’s almost impossible to regain that trust. And riding on other brands’ coattails means that, despite trying to capitalize off their wins, you also get grouped with their losses.

True creativity in branding — the kind that tends to resonate most with customers — happens when brands take inspiration from unlikely places to create something truly new and different. For Liquid Death, that inspiration comes from punk-rock shows, and for Surfe, it’s surfer culture.

How your brand can be your biggest asset

You know that there’s good value in the products or services you offer your customers — that’s why you’re in business, after all.

Your brand has value, too.

It’s an asset not unlike those products and services. Just because you can’t pick it up and hold it doesn’t mean it isn’t worth something. In fact, we’d argue that it’s worth quite a lot, especially in the long run.

That’s because your brand is your company's greatest intangible asset, and companies that invest in branding tend to outperform their peers. Brand increases the value of your tangible assets, and by investing in your brand early on, you get an even better return on investment.

It’s important to think intentionally about building a brand that will serve you well for the years to come — one that’s built on a foundation of radical differentiation, eschewing the pitfalls of its competitors and standing out to be something truly unique and unforgettable to customers.

Photos by Christophe Laurenceau, Ambo Ampeng, Carles Rabada and Sam Wermut on Unsplash

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