Personal Trainers, Walmart and Differentiation

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At the gym I frequent, there’s a personal trainer I don’t think very highly of.  Let’s call him Duff.

My issue with Duff is that he doesn’t push his clients to work out very hard.  In fact, I’ve never seen one sweat.  Instead, it’s more like Social Hour. Sometimes, Duff and his client are chatting it up during an exercise, which suggests a pretty low level of exertion.  I wish his clients would stop wasting their time and money, and I want Duff to do better training on their behalf.

On a seemingly unrelated note, yesterday I visited a Walmart in Chicago’s west suburbs.  At this store, merchandising took a back seat to other priorities; “cluttered” is a fair term to use.

Which one's better? It depends on what's important to you.
Which one’s better? It depends on what’s important to you.

Your typical Walmart loyalist is willing to trade off some of the more pleasurable aspects of shopping in order to get the lowest price.  Your typical Target loyalist, on the other hand, gives up a little on price for a certain design aesthetic.  (Both loyalists probably find the other a little silly.)

It’s worth noting that Target’s ascendancy largely occurred AFTER Walmart was already the biggest retailer in the history of the known universe.  One chain is not inherently better than the other.  They both provide examples of sharp differentiation – appealing to different people for different reasons.  And both have grown impressively.

Consider hotels.  They range from no-frills to pleasure palaces, with any number of options in between: Boutiques, business travel, and so on.  There are plenty of fuzzy concepts, but also sharp differentiation.  Many brands do well, in many niches.

So maybe I’m not giving Duff enough credit.  Maybe he’s just found his market.  If you want a little exercise (but not too much!) and some companionship for an hour, Duff’s the guy for you.  And apparently there’s a market for that.

What can we learn from Duff, Walmart and hotels?

Mimicking your competitors is the least creative path to a lousy result.

Imagine if Target had tried to duplicate Walmart’s business model. Target wouldn’t be around today. Instead, Target identified – and, it must be said, helped to create– a new segment to serve, and with which it could thrive.

There’s more than one way to create differentiation.

You’re only limited by your creativity. And business is a creative act. You’re creating difference, value and meaning. (Or you’re not.) When enough people want what you’ve created, you have a business and a brand. But don’t fall into the trap of thinking that the only way to win is to do what the market leader is doing. You and your competitors have different starting points, different objectives, different assets and weaknesses.  So it stands to reason that the optimal strategic path will be different for each of you.

So blaze a trail. Take a bold step. Serve the underserved. Delight the few to attract the many.  Do something different.

About Matthew Fenton: Matthew helps challenger brands to focus, grow and win.  Since founding his consultancy, Three Deuce Branding, in 1997, he’s helped hundreds of brands to achieve “brand clarity.”  His consulting services and speaking engagements help brands to focus on what matters through positioning, strategy and ideation.  Contact Matthew here.  He calls Chicago home.

Copyright 2013 – Matthew Fenton.  All Rights Reserved.  You may reprint this article with the original, unedited text intact, including the About Matthew Fenton section.

2 Replies to “Personal Trainers, Walmart and Differentiation”

  1. Let me add another tidbit on the dangers of “me too.” A few years back Walmart worked to de-clutter its stores, perhaps thinking that Target was on to something. Guess what? Customer satisfaction scores soared and sales dropped. Walmart stores are again properly cluttered which contributes to people believing that they are getting a bargain. To thine own self be true!

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