The future of a business rests on its ability to standout.
In some way, shape, or form, your business has to be different.
If it is, you’ll have a rock star brand with loyal customers who love to buy your stuff (and spread the word).
If it isn’t, you may find your brand trapped in a dark-hole of obscurity (with pitiful revenues).
Think of differentiation as a way to give people A REASON to choose you over your competitor.
The problem is, the old strategy for becoming different is getting stale.
Traditional wisdom advises us to:
“Create a unique selling proposition” (ex. The low-cost solution).
“Create a new category, then rule that category” (ex. 7up as “the uncola”).
Or, “narrow your niche” (ex. A marketing consultant for non-profits).
These strategies have worked for years, but that’s coming to an end. The reason is, they’ve become THE STANDARD.
There is something about using the standard strategy for becoming different that doesn’t make sense to me.
If the strategy I use to make my business different, isn’t different, will my business ACTUALLY BE different?
There are an infinite amount of ways a business can differentiate using the standard strategy, however. But I’d argue that only a fraction of those ways can actually create a profitable business.
Is it realistic to believe someone could build a sustainable business positioned as a twitter marketing consultant for Icelandic immigrants in America?
That position follows traditional wisdom. It’s unique, it’s a new category, and the niche is narrow…it’s all cash money from there, right?
The category is just too tiny.
There are only so many positions that can actually sustain a profitable business, and unfortunately being a marketing consultant to Icelandic immigrants isn’t one of those positions.
A limited amount of possibilities, along with competitors who are using the same strategy, means each category is in danger of ending up in an awful place where customers can’t tell one brand from another.
Soon, there won’t be a difference between Gillette or Schick…they’ll just be “razors.”
It won’t be Bud Light or Miller Light, it’ll just be “light beer.”
And every “SEO expert” will look like they offer the exact same service (which we know isn’t true).
This is all because businesses are running out of sustainable ways to position their brand, according to traditional wisdom.
The brands that are remarkable are the ones that ignored the standard strategy, in exchange for a whole new set of rules. (Psst, think Apple!)
The New Rules of Differentiation
Harvard professor, Youngme Moon, put it best in her book “Different” (affiliate link).
“Differentiated brands don’t compete, they separate.”
In other words you shouldn’t add “better” features to your product, you should completely reinvent what your product is.
According to Professor Moon, there are three specific ways a business can achieve separation, and they’re the basis for the New Rules of Being Different.
New Rule #1: Stick To Your Position With Reckless Abandon (Hostility)
Following this rule means, to an extent, you refuse to conform. Instead, you do what you do in order to maintain the legitimacy of your brand.
This might be one of the more uncomfortable strategies to pull off simply because at some point, you’ll feel as though you’re taking a big risk. Stick with it though, and you could end up at the top of the ladder.
Ikea is a great example of this strategy in action. They eliminated salesmen, delivery, and assembly. All three of which are the industry standard. I could imagine there were a few fearful meetings in the early days of the company. There is no question though, Ikea has become a powerhouse brand in part because they stuck to what their brand stands for, without compromise.
Key to Success: Define what your brand represents, and believe in it ’till death.
New Rule #2: Shift The Perception (Breakaway)
Our brains are complex. As humans we like to group things in a way that allows us to quickly and easily comprehend what it is, and how we should use it.
Customers categorize products in the same way. We expect a burger joint to give us a burger, a barber to cut our hair, and an energy drink to give us a boost.
This can be used to a brands advantage by attaching it to a completely separate category. This naturally shifts the customer’s perception of the product.
Huggies did this well with their Pull-Up brand of diaper. It removed the stigma around a 4 year old wearing diapers by shifting the perception of the Pull-Up and positioning it as underwear. Customers were then able to accept that their child was wearing a diaper, because they no longer thought of it as a diaper. It was underwear.
Key to Success: Understand the perception of the your category, then find an alternative category which would be beneficial to leverage.
New Rule #3: Simplify (Reversal)
This one is my favorite because I’m a big fan of simple.
In essence, you can create a differentiated brand by offering less.
Compare Google’s homepage to Yahoo! and you’ll get a good picture of how this works.
Which homepage has less?
And which brand is closest to world-domination?
Key to Success: Eliminate features that aren’t essential to delivering value.
The goal isn’t differentiation as much as it is non-conformity.
Non-conformity comes from calculated separation without regard for what your competitors are doing.
Differentiation is a pleasant side-effect of non-conformity.
The Closing Key To Success:
Separating your brand comes from knowing what your business does well, knowing what your business stands for, knowing what your competitors do, and refusing to do ANYTHING that might tilt your business towards the pack.