Somewhere in a humid conference room right now, someone is adding the phrase “disrupt the status quo” to a bulleted list titled “our values.” Can you smell the whiteboard marker? Can you hear the crackled audio of the one remote employee dialing in to suggest that we “shatter the status quo,” since the word “disrupt” is so overdone?
I’ve been there, you’ve been there, you might be there right now. One thing we all know deep down as we finish our third coffee of the morning: this is not how you differentiate your business, brand, or culture in a meaningful way. You can’t just say, “I’m not like those other guys.” You have to prove it out in market.
What Is Differentiation Strategy?
In short, differentiation is about eradicating sameness. It’s an approach that a business takes to develop a unique product, service, or experience that customers will find better, more distinctive, more memorable than the competitors. It’s how you cut through the noise. If successful, it allows the business the opportunity to raise awareness, grow like crazy, and even charge a premium.
Especially in today’s business environment, where since the start of this sentence seven more data companies just materialized, differentiation is everything. Unfortunately, it’s not enough to build great technology. You have to tell great stories, provide incredible experiences, meet the customer where they are, and look good while doing it.
What Are You Making?
The best way to implement differentiation is through invention or innovation. Your product is your shaping clay, and if you’re working with something novel and exciting, you already have a massive head start. Plant-based protein company Beyond Meat is a good example of this. As one of the IPO darlings of 2019, they have experienced exponential growth as a result of being the first entrant in the market. But with Impossible Foods close behind, and juggernauts like Nestle and Tyson developing competitor products, that head start will not last long.
What Are the Options?
Once you have a product, the next chapter of the story is how it’s made, how it’s bundled, how it’s deployed. Across multiple industries, differentiation strategy can be executed at the product level, too. Think about the difference between taking a cab and calling an Uber. If you take a cab, you’re taking a cab. That’s pretty much your level of choice. If you call an Uber, you can select between an UberX, Comfort, Pool, etc. The end result is the same—getting you from A to B—but the experience of Uber embodies more choice and control, further differentiating themselves from competitors in the eyes of the customer.
How Much Does It Cost?
Money shapes our expectations. When I order the second-cheapest bottle of wine on the menu, it is a strategic decision to be disappointed—but only a little bit. Price segmentation is one of the biggest differentiation weapons a brand has, and a powerful lever to pull for margin growth. Are you about luxury or accessibility? Is this an exclusive, premium experience no one else can offer? Is your mission to provide access for all, or empower a small segment to do incredible things? Every decision narrows your focus more and more.
What Does It Look and Feel Like?
This is the bread and butter right here. Everything we’ve mentioned so far has been rational pursuits, the “What?” part of our brain that compares utility to cost. And that’s incredibly important because that opens the door. But how a brand makes you feel is that irresistible, magnetic force that pulls you through the door by the heart. Moveworks is a cloud-based AI platform that resolves employees’ IT issues. On its face, IT management doesn’t seem like an emotional decision—but after scrolling through page after page of IT companies, each with similar offerings, how do you make a decision? A bold voice, a clear story, sleek design, interactive UI, a beautiful visual identity—this is what’s going to grab your attention and not let go. Your branding helps you attract the right people—whether prospective customers or employees—and hence plays a crucial role in differentiation.
Where Can I Buy It?
To butcher a Pepsi slogan from 1985, choice is the choice of a new generation. The ways in which we buy are changing all the time, from in-store, to online, to in-app, to subscription models, to droned directly to you straight from your vocal assistant. Your differentiation strategy should extend to your commerce experience, giving customers smart, easy, flexible ways to buy and be sold to.
What Happens After I Buy It?
The end of the purchase should not be the end of the customer journey. That would be the equivalent of being invited into someone’s home and then immediately saying, “Well, I best be going.” Now that you have this connection, you need to foster it by supplying continual value—before they even think to ask for it. That could be in the form of content through a newsletter or granting early access to products and experiences. With “Fans First” emails, Spotify gives access to presale tickets and exclusive merchandise not available anywhere else. You’re being rewarded for using the product, which only encourages you to engage more.
Why Does It Matter?
If there’s only one question you answer on this list, make it this one. For a moment, ignore price, ignore product-market fit, ignore the logo. Why does your brand matter? Why should people care? Why do your employees get up in the morning every day to come to work? What does a world without your brand look like? Why is it absolutely critical that you’re successful in your vision?
Your “Why?” is the ultimate differentiating factor. There will always be copycats and under-sellers, but articulating and delivering on your purpose is the hardest thing to replicate. If you pursue your “Why?” relentlessly, strategically, and passionately, everything else will fall into place.
Emotive Brand is a brand strategy and design agency in Oakland, California.