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Branding / May 6, 2020

Is Being Different Deadly for your Brand Success?


Geoff Wasserman


Every brand needs to identify and communicate its point of differentiation and its value proposition or the competition wins, and you lose. However, many times this pursuit of different goes into dangerous territory and bleeds over into decisions about what services to offer, how to offer them, and what sacred cows to sustain. The truth is, it’s not necessary to pursue difference for its own sake. Consumers will tell you what they want and how they want it packaged, shipped and serviced. For marketers, our job is to listen, respond, adapt, and deliver without sacrificing the integrity of our core value proposition. Too many organizations take the wrong stand on the wrong issue. When they do, the result is inevitable: Consumer wins, competition wins, you lose, even if your flag is the last thing everyone sees going under as the boat sinks.

6 Ways to Differentiate Without Hurting Your Brand Success

So, how do you make sure that you’re differentiating effectively without sacrificing too much on the altar of different? Here are a few insights our team has discovered over the past two decades working with clients and leading brands:

Go where the right type of customers are.

At a conference for financial advisors 15 years ago, a Million-Dollar Round Table Top Performer explained his method for always attracting high net worth clients: ”I only go marlin fishing where marlins swim. Why fish for marlins in minnow ponds?” Whether you’re in financial services or another market, the same principle applies. It seems crazy, but many times brands in pursuit of being different miss the mark here. They differentiate their brand so much, that they end up getting overlooked by those who should be their core customers. Go where the marlins are if you want to catch marlins.

Learn your traffic pattern.

On a vacation visiting family in Toronto, I was on my way to the mall with my Mom when she said: “Oh hang on, let me grab my old license plate so I can turn it in while we’re there.” I thought it was an odd statement, until she explained that the DMV places kiosks at the mall, where people already go as a destination. That way, customers can easily turn in old plates, pay their property taxes, and perform other administrative tasks—all at a self-service kiosk the city’s DMV had set up. She laughed when I explained to her about our city’s process: “Where I live, they still make us go to them.” Her reply: “Really? You’re the customer. Isn’t your government supposed to serve you?”

Cut with the grain.

In a discussion a few years ago with a restaurateur, as he explained the intricacies of the quality of a steak, one of my team members asked whether great chefs cut with or against the grain. He answered: “Cutting with the grain, of course. Cutting with the grain yields better results and a better experience. Most good chefs know that.” Going against the grain has worked in very specific market disruptions like Netflix, AirBnB, or Lyft. However, disruption has become a buzzword, even when it doesn’t apply. In most cases, going with the grain, learning from the example of legacy brands, and following best practices is going to give you better results.

Stop pushing. Find the pull.

In the 1950’s, when brands like Duncan Hines, Pillsbury, and Betty Crocker tried to introduce boxed cake mix products, the initial product launches failed, no matter how hard they pushed. There are lots of fascinating insights and background about this online. To summarize, there were challenges pushing the product through the distribution channels. Early mixes weren’t reliable and produced inconsistent results. More significant, however, was that launching the product post-World War II initially backfired because home cooks felt compelled to return to the way things were: “Like mom used to make.”

What made sales even tougher was public perception of both the target consumer and what the product boasted (shortening cooking time). Home cooks, primarily women living in a pre-woman’s movement era, had a difficult time reconciling modern convenience with traditional expectations.

After all, at that time, part of a woman’s self-worth was judged by whether she “spent all day slaving over a hot stove.” Feeding families out of a box diminished the perceived value of the housewife and of the product experience. The product, designed in essence to cut the time a woman spends in the kitchen, failed miserably because it was perceived by society as an erosion of the consumer’s value and self-worth.

Pushing the product on a customer base that wasn’t ready to change its mindset or habits failed miserably. The same companies re-released boxed cake mixes a few years later and it was accepted. Interestingly, they also found that minor changes—like removing powdered eggs from the mix—allowed the preparer to participate more on a creative level than just adding water or milk. This great compromise between “made from scratch” and “save time” was struck, and the brand was pulled through distribution channels by the same customers who had once rejected it. Now, the exact same customer base said: “I have a career, and I have other responsibilities. I don’t have time to cook all day. Give me something that takes less time to accomplish the same thing and still make me feel like I didn’t cheapen my love for my family and shortchange the ‘made from scratch’ experience, and I’ll buy it!”

Change or play catch-up forever.

The government focused too much on the post office, and they missed out on the postal revolution. Much like the DMV, they kept insisting we go to their building. So private enterprise stepped in, heard the customer, and set up shops—Mailboxes Etc., FedEx, and UPS to name a few. Now, the post office is playing defense and catch-up in a rat-in-the-wheel business plan that’s failing: keep raising postage rates and hope the existing loyal customers won’t get upset enough to join the defectors.

Map Success Stories.

McDonalds drive-thrus almost failed in Asia when they were originally introduced because consumers weren’t familiar with the experience. The company had to teach a culture and train them to change their life pattern, to drive around a building, pay at one window, pickup at the next, and eat in their car. Most of us don’t have the budget and staying power McDonalds did to change an entire culture’s accepted life pattern so that they’ll buy our product—which is why mapping is so important. For most companies, mapping their delivery model after the accepted customer experience is the best way to achieve success.

Funny, how so many businesses seem to miss that principle. In an era where there’s such a pressure to be different and break away from normal, there’s a very dangerous, even deadly mistake so many businesses make: “We want to be different from all our competitors” or “We want to do things totally different that what people are used to.” These are statements I’ve heard from so many organizations we’ve worked with. The problem is, there’s significant opportunity in delivering the same, particularly the same process the consumer’s already said they want. When you have a market saying “give it to me this way and I’ll buy from you” smart marketers focus on delivering, until the market begins showing signs that they’d consider different.

Of course, it’s important to be willing to challenge your organization’s internal pressure to keep things the way you’ve grown comfortable doing them. The risk of not challenging that culture is the chance of becoming irrelevant to the very people you were once passionate about reaching. However, don’t make pursuing change and difference a sacred cow. Find your point of differentiation, your competitive edge, and drive it home in your marketing messages and in everything you do. But don’t get passionate about different. Stay passionate about delivering your product to consumers in a way they need it, want it, and receive it. After all, he who honors sacred cows goes hungry at night.

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