Welcome to the Sameness Era.
It’s never been easier for competitors to mimic your offering. Most product features can be quickly copied. Technological advantages are rapidly neutralized. Parity rules. In the Sameness Era, standing apart from the crowd can be so difficult as to seem impossible.
A client recently underscored this point. During the Discovery phase of a positioning project, I was interviewing one of the founders of the company. (We’ll call them XYZ Inc.) When asked what made XYZ unique, he paused, and then said, somewhat resignedly:
“I’m probably the doubting Thomas that thinks, ‘You’d have to be nuts to think we’re that different.’ I can’t say we do something radically different.”
I repeat: This is a founding partner, one of the few people on this planet who should be best equipped to articulate his company’s uniqueness. But his words suggest an issue that we’re all increasingly forced to confront: When everyone can be the same, how can you be different?
There are few questions a brand leader will address that are as important. Creating difference, after all, is our job.
The good news: Difference can be found in many ways. But first, what not to do: Do not ask your consumers how you should be different. They won’t be able to tell you. They can tell you where you fall short of the competition, but that will only bring you to parity. Consumers are historically better editors than creators; they can tell you what they think of an idea, but they’re less able to generate the idea itself. And, let’s face it: Your consumers have more important things on their minds than your brand’s next move.
Instead, consider the following potent areas of exploration (note that some will overlap):
Your brand vision and positioning. If you’ve properly constructed your brand vision, you’ve already made a bold choice to be different. Ask: Are we doing everything we can to bring that vision to life?
Your roots. Why did you start the company or launch the brand in the first place? Very often, these reasons include notions of bringing something better to the world. When these notions are acted upon, powerful difference can result.
Your strengths and competencies. As an organization, what are you good at? How can these strengths be leveraged to create a unique experience?
Your passions. What energizes and motivates your people? Passion is quite often the difference between a mediocre brand and a great one.
Your values. What do you stand for and believe in? Remember that the market doesn’t care about the values you claim to have; they only care about the values you put into action.
Your rules. Every company and every industry has a set of established “rules” that dictate how they operate. Identify these rules. Then start breaking them.
Your brand “bundle.” What can you provide beyond the product or service basics? This may include delivery methods, guarantees, service policies, and dozens of other things that enrich the overall experience.
As for XYZ Inc., I’m pleased to report a happy ending. After discussions with the client team, I asked their customers what made XYZ unique, and the results were revealing. (Note the distinction between asking customers how you are different and how you should be different.) Customers recognized XYZ for truly living its values, for its expertise and knowledge, and for “always acting with my interests in mind.” It’s not a transactional relationship, it’s a personal one, and because of this, customer loyalty is extremely high.
I then returned to the client and asked a simple question:
“If you’re not different… then why do your customers love you?”
XYZ’s founder didn’t give his company enough credit. They create real difference not in what they do, but in the way they do it. In the Sameness Era, most of us will find that “the way we do it” is the path to real difference.
A version of this post appeared in the Cincinnati Business Courier on May 30, 2008, in the column “That Branding Thing.”
About Matthew Fenton: Matthew founded Three Deuce Branding in 1997 with a simple mission: “To help good people build great brands.” He’s a former CMO who repeatedly led underdog brands to dramatically outpace the market, and now he does the same for the clients he serves. Businesses with revenues of seven to ten figures trust Matthew to help them achieve “brand clarity” through core brand strategy and positioning. Matthew is also a highly-rated speaker. Contact Matthew here. He’s based in Chicago.
Copyright 2008 – Matthew Fenton. All Rights Reserved. You may reprint this article with the original, unedited text intact, including the About Matthew Fenton section.