The Insights Blog

Martin Agency’s Elizabeth Paul on Selling Your Competitive Strategy with the “Sameness Collage”

Martin Agency’s Elizabeth Paul on Selling Your Competitive Strategy with the “Sameness Collage”

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Written by Stephen Boehler with special guest Elizabeth Paul

CMOs, senior marketers, and agency executives are often tasked with the critical challenge of differentiating their brand or business. Most companies in the same industry look and sound the same. Yet – there is a comfort to management in this similarity! Because of this comfort – and the fear of venturing forward in a new way – the executives tasked with driving the business often need to be able to make a compelling case for differentiation.

A couple of years ago I saw famed strategist Elizabeth Paul, now CSO at the Martin Agency, build a case for a brand’s need for greater differentiation around a series of powerful images. I walked away so impressed and yet didn’t even have a name for the technique. At Mercer Island Group we started preaching about the approach and needed to name it – and thus The Sameness Collage was born.

Elizabeth was gracious and offered to join me in this post as we discuss the idea of The Sameness Collage and how it can be an effective aid to your presentation.

What we can learn from romantic comedies?

That may be a surprising question in a paper about how to sell a differentiation strategy! Stick with us for a moment.

A few years ago Elizabeth was the strategist on a team pitching the business at a leading retailer. They thought the client’s business needed greater differentiation in a crowded marketplace. Elizabeth hit on a brilliant way to explain how most brands in most industries weren’t very differentiated. Early in the presentation, Elizabeth shared a visual like this:

Elizabeth, please tell us about your thought process here!

It’s hard to find a polite way to tell a prospective client that the work they’ve worked so hard to craft and spent so much time and money on is effectively invisible. But having that conversation is essential if you’re going to fight for their highest possible good. Ads are easier to ignore when they’re wallpaper — vaguely familiar impressions of something people have seen before — which is true in most categories.

In this case, we were in a pitch with an amazing company that’s actually incredibly distinctive in its business model and store experience. They have rabid fans who love to shop there, and to share things they’ve found — but their advertising doesn’t have any of that singularity. So to call out the problem without making them feel targeted, we created collages of a lot of categories that suffer from the same affliction — starting with some that felt so far away they could laugh at it objectively (rom coms) and landing closer to home — with their category and their advertising.

Few marketers will admit that they’re following a formula in creating their work, but it’s not hard to see that the paint by number prescription for a rom com poster is:

  • Attractive couple
  • Standing back-to-back
  • Evocative facial expressions
  • Prominently display the name of the rom com
  • Two stars identified

It looks like the same creative team produced all of these posters. The image makes its point more quickly and more convincingly than words ever could. And it eases the blow when you have to break the news that the marketers you’re presenting to are doing the exact same thing.

The Sameness Collage

This visual, at its essence, is what we at Mercer Island Group call the Sameness Collage: a simple visual that showcases how competing brands in a category often look and sound alike. If your brand disappears in this kind of “sea of sameness”, you may need to sell others on your need to stand out.

Okay – this might work for romantic comedies, but not in my category!

Elizabeth: It’s easy to look at the rom com posters and think “that’s an extreme example, I would never do that” — but you could build one of these for virtually any category.

It’s important to remember that category conventions are conventions for a reason. Most marketers are looking at the same research with the same ‘best practices’ that prescribe the same paint-by-number approach. 

Here’s a look at high-end sports sedans:

Or European beer ads:

I’m sure something somewhere said that the water cues make the beer seem refreshing and backlighting the bottle best it’s color and the branding on the label. Some may say it’s a case of ‘follow the leader’ — but misattribution tends to favor the category leader, so that’s a dangerous game for the imitators.

I encourage strategists (and marketers!) to try this exercise for themselves —look at the ads from several competitors in your industry and see how similar they are. List the conventions in the sea of sameness. Then run in the other direction.


For lipsticks its…

  • Beautiful model up close
  • Radiant lips
  • Deep red or dark pink
  • Eyes that look right at the consumer
  • A product shot and brand name

Steve: You’re so right, Elizabeth! In fact, in most markets, most of the work is similar! Take a look at grocery store circulars:

Most grocery circulars look exactly the same except for their logos. A simple layout with lots of products; 99-cent price points; sales language; often a holiday or season; and the chain’s logo.

Elizabeth: The concept of a “sea of sameness” has become ubiquitous, but rarely do we think about how the sea becomes the same. Often brands inadvertently trade their distinctiveness for comfort. Breaking away from the pack can feel like a risk, but it’s far riskier to make something that’s likely to be ignored.

The Sameness Collage can help make the case for greater differentiation

Try this in your category: collect the advertising and promotional materials from the major brands in your category and look at them together on a table (or your PC). Does the outcome showcase an industry where most brands blend together and yours does not stand out? If so, you need to spend more time differentiating your brand or business. And the Sameness Collage can help you make the case for the need for greater differentiation.

Elizabeth Paul, Chief Strategy Officer at The Martin Agency, is one of the world’s leading agency strategists. She’s helped agencies win every award imaginable and helped her accounts drive impressive business results. Recently, Elizabeth has been part of a team that has helped drive a dozen new account wins and helped The Martin Agency become Agency of the Year.

Steve Boehler, founder and partner at Mercer Island Group, has led consulting teams on behalf of clients as diverse as Zillow Group, Microsoft, UScellular, Nintendo, Ulta Beauty, Stop & Shop, Qualcomm, Brooks Running and numerous others. He founded MIG after serving as a division president in a Fortune 100 when he was only 32. Earlier in his career, Steve Boehler cut his teeth with a decade in Brand Management at Procter & Gamble, leading brands like Tide, Pringles and Jif.