There’s a lot of loose talk about differentiation these days. Most of it happens in marketing departments and not enough at the boardroom table.
The ability to recognise differentiation and understand its implications was a very early part of human psychological evolution. As hunter gatherers, we had to recognised different fruits, plants and seeds and understand their impact on our digestive systems. There were no ‘warning, may contain nuts’ labels in the primal forest. Similarly, our ancestors had to know instinctively what to do when they met a browsing herbivore or a hungry carnivore.
So, recognition of differentiation and its implications is hard wired into modern consumers. It makes them quick to evaluate brand promise versus product performance. And now, thanks to the internet, they can sound a digital alarm call. Calling their social network to try this new wonder, or warning them away from that hazard.
As a business leader, you know that differentiation is the start of any sustainable enterprise. Your venture must stand out from the crowd in a way that is relevant to a consumer need. It’s not enough to launch another pharmacy chain and thereby hope for a share of that category. You must identify gaps in product, service, accessibility and value proposition if your business is going to attract customers.
Having achieved initial differentiation, your brand may over time increase in stature. It should gather perceptions of being modern, useful, easy to engage with, helpful and then move on towards being seen as trustworthy.
As a marketer, you should know that relevant differentiation is the seed of marketing success. And your task is to find or create that differentiation.
So why is it that whole industry sectors fail the differentiation test? The world over, airlines, banks, insurance companies, tourism, mobile telephony, utilities - all major contributors to economic growth - are all poor at separating themselves from each other.
I suspect that this too is a product of evolution. As a sector grows powerful and becomes established, the focus comes off the customer and onto peer benchmarking. Boards look at competitors in their domestic and regional markets, far more that they consider customers.
And marketers, who have not yet earned their place at the boardroom table, look at their bosses more than they do the market. Before you know it, a whole sector is travelling in the same direction, at the same speed. Just like the herds of Bison roaming the American Prairie before a competitor species invented the repeating rifle.
Differentiation is too important to be delegated. It needs to become the primary competence for CEO’s.
Chris Harrison leads The Brand Inside