The ‘Differentiation’ Myth – Why Most Businesses Get it Wrong and How to Get it Right


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Yes, you are special – just like everyone else! Actually, the truth is you *are* special… is everyone else. But what makes you special in your business rarely comes down to just one thing. It can, certainly. For most of us, however, it’s usually a mix of things that makes our business different.

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 often 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. Unless you have a wicked awesome IP portfolio, 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 value propositions, you’ll be waiting a long time.

The myth of 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 our unique value proposition, as if it’s as easy as picking up items at the store. Got a differentiation ‘easy’ button? 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.

Moreover, differentiation isn’t about a fancy, slick value proposition – people want honest, simple, and 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 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

Sustainable differentiation also never comes from things that you are expected to have. For example, trust. Oh yes – “trust.” I worked with a 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: “Oh, really? I don’t know anyone in the market for an untrustworthy bank, do you?” Here’s the deal: 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.

Another claim to differentiation is service. Now, this can certainly be a source of differentiation – albeit usually not by itself. 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. 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 service. Few competitors do that.” This statement qualified ‘for whom’ that service matters – in this case, small businesses.

Service by itself is usually not a sustainable differentiation, so it’s important not to rely on it. 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. And, like trust, if it’s expected, than you can’t claim it as a sustainable source of differentiation.

Uncovering Your ‘Unique’ Mix

Back away from the obvious and expected ‘suspects’ of service, trust, and ‘experience.’ 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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