What We've Got Here is a Failure to... Differentiate.
Differentiation is like the weather. Everyone in marketing talks about it, but no one does anything about it. Whether it was Rosser Reeve's Unique Selling Proposition, Jim Collin's Best in the World circle (the Hedgehog Concept), or Jack Trout's Differentiate or Die theories, the vast majority of books written on marketing and business in general speak to the need for brands to differentiate themselves.
For all the preaching, few seem to hear the gospel. And for good reason. It's hard. Brutally hard.
How many of us can truly say that we do something better than anyone else in the world? The Apple's and Zappos' are few and far between. If we're good or smart or lucky, at most we may hope to be the best within a defined geographic territory or market segment.
In working with clients on their brand strategies, the challenge of identifying key differentiators is almost always the most difficult one we collectively face. Yet without some means of conveying to the marketplace a demonstrable and dramatic point of differentiation, one risks being viewed as a commodity vendor. And we all know who wins the commodity game. The low price provider. That's a game most businesses don't want to play.
So what's the answer? Seth Godin stated it well when he said, "Differentiation means thinking very hard about the market and your competitors and somehow making yourself different." He goes on to say it really isn't about being different, so much as it is doing something worth talking about.
Even that is hard, but let me offer some examples that speak to making the proverbial lemonade out of the lemons life hands us.
Southwest Airlines – Its basic product isn't all that much different than other carriers. But Southwest has embraced the concept of providing a uniquely pleasurable customer experience. (Free baggage helps, too.)
Egg-Land's Best eggs – An egg is clearly a commodity product, yet this company succeeded in marketing their products as a better (and higher priced) alternative to generic eggs because of the way they fed their hens.
Starbucks – It's safe to say coffee and coffee houses are fairly ubiquitous. Have been for a long time. So how did Starbucks manage to create a premium brand? By understanding that they weren't selling coffee so much as the experience involved in being in one of their cafes.
This is the kind of differentiation Godin is talking about. And it can't be accomplished by doing what everyone else is doing or by accepting that the way things are today is the way they always will be. Creating something special takes a special kind of creativity. It also takes good old fashioned hard work and discipline. In the immortal words of Richard Starkey (aka Ringo Starr):
"Got to pay your dues if you wanna play the blues,
and you know that don't come easy."
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