I was speaking with a colleague about branding and the concept of differentiation. His perspective was troubling to me. In sum, he said: “Differentiation is overrated. We’re too hung up on trying to differentiate ourselves from the rest of the pack. What’s important is matching up as well as possible what you do best with what customers want most. You can spend a lot of wasted energy trying to differentiate and claim a position, but this won’t necessarily drive growth. Just perform for your customers, damn it!”
Are we wasting our time trying to unearth what Brad Van Auken suggests is the sweet spot of our brand?
In a word, my answer is NO!
Differentiation is critical. You want to be somebody rather than just another business in the lumped-in-with-everybody category. Diligently doing what you do best to meet what people want most is honorable work, but the problem is that your competitors are engaged in the same exercise. Everybody is working hard to meet market expectations.
If you want to be noticed, if you want an edge in building demand for what you’re offering, then you need to differentiate. You need to communicate, in a unique and compelling way, why the market should consider and choose you over everybody else. Not attempting differentiation is essentially the same as resigning yourself to commodity status.
I believe every business can differentiate itself in some way that’s important to customers.
For example, you may find yourself in an industry where all businesses are innovators and are trying to own that position. BUT remember, it may not be how innovative you are, but how you deliver upon that promise of innovation that’s important to customers.
“Okay, so you’re a technology leader. That don’t impress me much. I want to work with the innovator who can help me get out to the market faster than my competitors.”
“Okay, so you have the most advanced technology available. That don’t impress me much. I want to work with the innovator who is the best at helping me apply the technology to make my products better.”
“Okay, so you are on the edge when it comes to new technologies. That don’t impress me much. I’m running a multi-billion dollar business here and don’t have time to fool around. want to work with the innovator who can deliver new and intelligent solutions that can be trusted to work.”
For me, this whole question prompts me to wonder if some of us underestimate the PERCEPTION of value. Remember, value isn’t just real dollar value, but also perceived value. You want customers to experience and perceive that they are getting more value from you than from your competitors. Building a perception of difference is important because, as we all know or should know, buying decisions (yes, even in the B2B space) are not built on cold rationality alone. Buyers base their decisions on a wide variety of variables, from performance attributes to the like-ability of people behind the brand choice. Don’t you want to clearly communicate a compelling reason for buyers to choose your brand over competitive alternatives?
The one thing I will readily acknowledge is that the magic of branding is not so magical anymore. Buyers are much more aware of how branding works and how it’s supposed to work on them, as Kevin Roberts has rightly pointed out. The result is that buyers are much more skeptical and discerning. This means, I believe, that if you are going to differentiate, your position must be believable and credible.
I want to hear from others on this question. Is differentiation overrated? Should the focus lie elsewhere? Or do you see it as I do… that differentiation is a critical building block when it comes to clearly communicating why buyers should choose one brand over competitive alternatives? And even if you embrace the notion of differentiation, what are some of the problems you see with differentiation strategies?