With so many b-to-b and b-to-c brands vying for attention and business, the need has never been greater for true, relevant differentiation among competitive products and services.

Bombarded with so many choices tossed at them in so many ways, potential customers are desperately seeking a reason to justify one competitive solution over another. Yet most marketers fail to deliver a truly differentiated brand identity for their product or service. Instead, they offer up a similar-but-slightly-different feature/benefit story, often trying to be all things to as many people as possible so as not to give up potential business — while in actuality setting their brand to sail on an already cluttered sea of competitive sameness. I see it all the time, and you do, too.

Granted, true and relevant differentiation is hard work, but isn’t it worth the effort considering the distinctive place (and business results) you can hold in the competitive brandscape?

What’s the true difference in comparable healthcare services? Banks? Cement brands? Bottled water? Competitive software solutions?  Sports shoes? Activated carbon? Insurance providers? Your brand versus your competitors’?

(Hint: true differentiation does not lie simply in the cleverness of a great ad campaign, or in tactics involving pricing, selection, quality, or customer service.)

Noted marketer and Harvard professor Ted Levitt wrote in his 1991 book, Thinking About Management, “Differentiation is one of the most important strategic and tactical activities in which companies must constantly engage.” Hmmm. Me thinks this man speaketh the truth.

Long Live The Unique Selling Proposition

Any marketer worth his or her salt remembers Rosser Reeves as the man who formalized the concept of the “Unique Selling Proposition” in his 1961 book, Reality in Advertising. According to Reeves, in order for their USP to be effective, advertisers were required to focus on the single genuine differentiating reason to buy their product or service. Aligned with prospects’ wants and needs, that’s the pure definition of relevant differentiation. While it still resonates today, many marketers, for whatever reasons, fail to apply this sage counsel to their branding efforts.

I’ve personally wrestled with identifying and clarifying the true USP for many of the brands I’ve worked with over the past 30-plus years. I know firsthand that it isn’t as easy as Reeves makes it sound. But it’s ultimately a matter of the success or failure of your brand that you figure it out. And do it well.

In 2001 (and updated in 2008), respected marketer and author Jack Trout published Differentiate or Die, an excellent read on the need and ways for true differentiation. He acknowledges that in our modern era of reverse engineering lasting product differentiation is tough. And patent protection only goes so far. Still, differentiation with the product or service itself is the first thing to consider. As Trout puts it, “improve, update, or reinvent.” Improve or add meaningful features — or completely reinvent — to provide a genuine, appreciable point of difference. 

Operating more efficiently and effectively than your competitors is not typically a viable long-term differentiating strategy, though many brand managers are smart to focus on better customer service, improved communications, etc. As important — and must-do — brand building blocks as those are, competitors may eventually level the playing field with respect to them.

The real opportunity for differentiation is something else. To find what it is for your specific brand, consider systematic introspection, target market research, and competitive analysis to start.

Uncover the point of difference that uniquely and authentically belongs to your brand and doggedly pursue it (and take this to heart: you DO have at least one point of authentic differentiation). This difference must be genuine, and it must be something of true value to your prospects. Strategically, this is brand positioning — part of the larger process of crafting a finely honed, sharply defined brand identity.

In future posts we’ll offer suggestions for discovering the true point of difference for your brand. In the meantime, look inward to your brand and outward to the marketing environment in which you compete and begin identifying the opportunities for true brand differentiation. Your business depends on it. Need help? We can do that right here at 34 North.