I took these pictures of a small expo of televisions in a shopping centre. There were three stalls – each displaying the latest TV offerings from a different brand name manufacturer. Can you guess which ones were from which manufacturer?

How similar these products look to each other! Removing the logos that were plastered all over the place essentially turned these products into anonymous lumps of plastic and glass. They could well have all come from the same manufacturer. Unless I look at each product closely to identify the different design details, it is impossible for me to tell one maker from another.

Product design and technical excellence are clearly no longer the key differentiator they once were. Certainly not at the mass-market level. A TV is just a commodity product these days; with fairly uniform user requirements and feature sets, similar pricing, similar technology, and more or less the same quality. (At the higher end of the market served by the likes of Loewe and Bang & Olufsen, a different set of parameters come into play of course.)

So who can really tell these products apart at a glance? Who cares enough to? The loyal tribemembers of course. These are the Sony camper, the Samsung fans, or the Sharp aficionados. These are the people who have done the research, read the online reviews, and participated in the discussion forums. They know their brand.

Outsiders are unlikely to be converted to a particular brand just by chancing upon an expo such as this. I certainly feel no particular affinity towards any of the brands after a look at their wares.

Given the lack of product and technical differentiation, the brand names themselves become more valuable – or rather the emotive values imbued with a brand. Beliefs, values, personality, integrity, corporate social responsibility, design philosophy, ethics, attitude to customer service … these aspects of a brand give customers something real to connect to, to talk about, to form tribes over.

Tribes are more important now than ever before. Only those who truly care about your products can tell it apart from the others. More importantly, they will actively recruit their friends and family as new tribemembers.

Here’s the photo again with the logos visible. Did you correctly guess the brands?

Notice how much of the visual field is give over to logos? It is almost as if these companies are self conscious about the lack of obvious differentiation between their products, and therefore need big logos on every surface.

Of course, simply plastering more and bigger logos everywhere won't do much if there is nothing substantial for customers to connect to.