Differentiation: Drop Expected & Focus on Mix


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Yes, you are special – just like everyone else! Actually, the truth is you *are* special…..as is everyone else. Therein lies the rub. But what makes you special in your business rarely comes down to just one thing. It can, certainly. And there are companies that have a big, single-point of differentiation. For most of us, however, it’s usually a mix of things that makes our business, well, different.


The power of differentiation

The Commoditization Trap

CMOs and buisness owners are in a battle against commoditization – especially in certain industries where competition is fierce and perceived differentiation isn’t huge (financial services is just one area, for example). It’s hard to build sustainable differentiation over time, and yet the ability to maintain it and clearly and credibly communicate it is essential for profitable growth. Perceived commoditization by customers is a competitive death trap that’s hard to dig out of. That means actively working to maintain and communicate your difference and your story is important.

I have wanted to write this post for a while. I talk to companies of every size and industry that often struggle articulating their differentiation, and many times it comes down to a belief in this myth of finding ‘the one thing no one else in the whole wide world does but me.’ Unique differentiation isn’t like a fingerprint per se.

Differentiation or Commoditization

Differentiation or Commoditization

Unless you have a wicked awesome IP portfolio or a big, bold first mover advantage, it’s probably not going to happen. Finding a unicorn is easier. This ‘single point of differentiation ‘that no one else in the whole world has’ mentality not only sets us up to fail, it paralyzes us from taking needed action to move our businesses forward. If you’re waiting to find the ‘Holy Grail’ of differentiation, you’ll be waiting a long time. AARP will find you first! Too many companies use this as a stumbling block to articulating their differentiation mix.

The myth of single point differentiation isn’t your fault. We’ve been told over and over by popular trade press and business literature to find our differentiation and to shout it from the mountaintops, as if it’s as easy as picking up items at the store. We all know it takes a lot of work analyzing and excavating our strengths to get to the heart of it. And, for most of us, what we do isn’t unique per se; rather, our differentiation is a combination of factors including who we are and what we value, our why (why we believe what we believe), our audience, and our way of doing things (how we do them). Yes, most of us are combination packages – not singular one-track wonders. Sure, these single-point of differentiation companies do exist; they are not the rule.

Moreover, differentiation isn’t about fancy, slick value propositions – people want honest, simple, reliable statements that show them how your ‘difference’ will make them better off.

It’s the Differentiation Combination That Matters

I know the deal – I really do. There isn’t anything magical about the fact that I do marketing. There are lots of marketers out there. Yet, the total is greater than the sum of the parts. For example, I am a marketer that helps executives and their teams tell better marketing stories to get results. In addition to a marketing background of working with and for large corporations, I have 20 years’ experience in storytelling, improvisation, and comedy. My approach to marketing is informed by the fact that I believe all business is about people. And people hate jargon, marketing hype, BS, and facts-overload. Everything in my background speaks credibly to what I value.

While other people will have marketing backgrounds, what are the odds they will: 1) value what I value, 2) approach business with the same philosophy, 3) understand my audience’s needs as I do, and 4) bring the same improvisation and storytelling background to their work as I have? That narrows my competition considerably. My differentiation is based on who I am and what I value, my ‘why,’ and how I do what I do – and of course, the particular audience I do it for. It’s the combination that’s difficult to replicate. And how do I leave people better off? My ability to tell stories helps clients tell better stories that matter and get results.

Sustainable Differentiation: If it’s Expected, You Can’t Claim it

(or…’We’re experienced, authentic, trusted service providers.’ Congrats – you just described what you are EXPECTED to be!)

Sustainable differentiation also never comes from things that you are expected to have. For example, trust. Oh yes – “trust.” I worked with a certain bank years ago. As we started working together on messaging, the President said to me with a proud and confident smile that his differentiation was trust. My response with a smile was: “Oh, really? I don’t know anyone in the market for an untrustworthy bank, do you?” You are *supposed* to be trusted or you shouldn’t be in business. End of story. And that goes for every one of us. When it’s expected – it’s not a claim to differentiation fame. Trust is earned over time and it can be lost easily: hard to earn and easy to burn. Look at companies like Target today. Your customers endow you with trust – you do not endow yourself – based on repeated actions over time. And, when the company screws up big time, trust is damaged.

You're Expected to Be Trusted - Not a Source of Differentiation


Then there’s another one of my differentiation peeves: authenticity. You are expected to be authentic. It’s part of a brand’s job. Let me put this another way. Is there a market for the opposite? I recently received an invite to a workshop called ‘Authentic Leadership.’ I get it. Authenticity is important; it’s also inherent to leadership. Great leaders are authentic. Is there a market for inauthentic leadership? Not that I know of! While, yes, authenticity is important, it’s a claim that is often diluted and everyone else makes it ‘their’ difference, too.

Another claim to differentiation is service. Service means different things to different people. So if you say, we have the best customer service – people will rightly say, “Prove it.” It’s a hard standard to uphold because what is great service for one audience may be very different for another. Is it possible to differentiate solely on service? Absolutely. However, for many companies (not all) service is not defined well and not sustained easily. So one way to qualify ‘service’ (way too broad)’ is to try something like this that narrows the focus: “for small businesses between 1 and 10 employees, we provide a dedicated account rep so customers get dedicated support from someone who knows their account (as opposed to getting whoever answers the phone/email/etc.). Few competitors do that.” This statement qualified ‘for whom’ that service (defined here as support with a dedicated account rep) matters – in this case, small businesses who need hand-holding.

Service by itself may or may not be a sustainable differentiation unless you commit resources to it and do it well consistently. Amazon, Zappos and others do it well, for example. Every business in theory should strive for great service. If your competition can claim it – key word here, ‘claim’ not verify – it becomes a me-too expectation. That’s not to say that service cannot be part of your multiple-point differentiation. It can. Be wary, however, of claiming a single point of difference that others will claim when ‘service’ is a subjective experience and the industry is hyper-competitive. If you claim it, you have to back it up. “Prove it” is the mantra!

Uncovering Your ‘Unique’ Mix

Back away from the obvious and expected ‘suspects’ of trust, authenticity and experience (I don’t know of a huge market for inexperienced providers, do you?!). Instead, analyze the most important things that make you ‘you’ including:

1. What do you value? Your business is a reflection of those values.
2. What is your “why” or core purpose for existing as a business? This is bigger than your products and services. What motivates you to do what you do?
3. What audience/s do you serve (and be specific), and what qualifies you to do that?
4. How do you do what you do? Is there something different about your background that allows you to do something in a really different way that helps customers be better off? In my case, my improvisation background elevates my marketing storytelling so customers benefit.

When you step back and look at multiple factors as your source of strength, you’ll find that your combination of factors is what’s different, and that mix is a recipe that’s harder for your competitors to replicate over time.

So go ahead and be special….just make sure your differentiation mix is too.

How do you approach articulating your differentiation?

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Kathy Klotz-Guest
For 20 years, Kathy has created successful products, marketing stories, and messaging for companies such as SGI, Gartner, Excite, Autodesk, and MediaMetrix. Kathy turns marketing "messages" into powerful human stories that get results. Her improvisation background helps marketing teams achieve better business outcomes. She is a founding fellow for the Society for New Communications Research, where she recently completed research on video storytelling. Kathy has an MLA from Stanford University, an MBA from UC Berkeley, and an MA in multimedia apps design.


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