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Strategy Growth

What Is True Differentiation and How Do Brands Achieve It?

By: Robert Wallace

In business, the fastest path to irrelevancy is redundancy. If your brand simply falls in line with the ever-growing number of competitors in your industry, will your customers be able to find you? And if they do, will they even care about what your brand has to offer?

These are questions nearly every organization has faced, still setting a business apart remains one of the biggest challenges for most.

True differentiation is the point at which a brand breaks out of the competitive clutter and establishes itself as a wholly unique entity. You’ll notice I didn’t use the words “product,” “idea,” or “service,” and that’s intentional. The actual “what” your business is selling is not the thing that will differentiate you in the eyes of savvy customers. True differentiation is an entire package that’s centered around fulfilling the apparent and latent wants and needs of your customers first, then using great products and services as the icing on the cake.

Getting strategic about differentiation

We’ve seen it across every industry –– one great idea is just the catalyst for a dogpile of spinoffs and copycats in a rush to be first to market, lowest in price, most innovative in utilizing new technologies, etc. Any attempt to stand out in one of these external ways often results in companies spreading themselves too thin and losing sight of the reason they went into business in the first place. It can also cause panicked moves based on what’s popular in the industry, even if they’re not in the best interest of the company.

In order to effectively differentiate, organizations must discover the one thing they are best at and double down on it at every opportunity. They must find their North Star, and use it to guide all future decisions from product development to hiring to marketing.

What capabilities do you possess that are different than the capabilities of your competitor’s, even if you’re selling very similar products? How do your capabilities enable you to solve for your customer’s most pressing needs in a unique way? Sounds simple, right? It isn’t.

Look at Amazon for example. Consumers have countless options for online shopping, but an estimated 65 million Prime members choose Amazon for convenience and comparable pricing. Amazon realized what they’re really selling is convenience and accessibility, and all of their subsequent products and partnerships have aligned with those pillars. This is also why they’re willing to forgo deep profits on the sale of products in exchange for market share ––they know their strong suit is the convenience factor. And they’ve built perhaps the best fulfillment and logistics operation in the world around that differentiation.

When in doubt, turn to your customers

Specializing in that one thing your brand does well helps narrow your target audience. One of the biggest challenges for growth organizations is scaling highly personalized customer service, but that challenge becomes less steep if there’s a foundation of delivering pointed, consistent service that solves a relatively narrow, niche need. Aiming to solve a plethora of consumer problems doesn’t differentiate your brand–– it complicates it. Knowing your customers intimately allows you to better meet their needs in a unique and memorable way.

Taking a customer-centric approach to differentiation is akin to knowing what’s behind each door rather than playing a round of “Let’s Make a Deal.” It better positions you to strategically build off of your brand as you move in lockstep with your customers and towards your desired outcomes. In other words, you’re more likely to open the door to the new car rather than the room full of goats.

This approach also gives you opportunities to conduct self audits as you navigate the path to differentiation. Are you solving for the right customer pain points? Have you aligned what you’re really good at with the right market that can most benefit from your expertise?

Differentiated companies find that bullseye and keep throwing darts straight into its core. Airbnb realized they were delivering more than just places to stay, they were providing a chance to have a one-of-kind, local experience even if it was in a city you’ve been to numerous times. They’ve since parlayed that strong suit into Airbnb Experiences.

Innovation has to start from a baseline of everyone pulling in the same direction. Sometimes it can take work to get there, but with the right tools, you’ll be able to chip away at what could be blocking you from establishing your core differentiator. In every case, however, getting to the root of what makes your brand different involves first understanding who your customer is.

Written by Robert Wallace

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