Are you Different or Distinct?

Episode 01

It’s not about being the only option, it’s about being the right option. Join Derek and Tucker as they discuss Differentiation & Distinction.


Today we’re going to talk about differentiation, distinction, and that whole mess in branding and marketing.


Yeah, two different things. A lot of people think that differentiation is distinction, that being distinctive in the eyes of our audience, that how we do that is by differentiating. And when we talk about helping our customers communicate and differentiate, that’s interpreted in a variety of different ways. So let’s lay the foundation of this conversation. Tucker, what does differentiation mean?



Differentiation is about being the only option or the right option for a specific audience. So this means offering a unique, identifiable collection of deliverables, and those deliverables can be services or products. But when you look at it, what do we deliver to our customers, and is that any different or unique from what our competitors offer to those same customers?

Expand Full Transcript


Yeah, it’s giving people a reason to choose your business over somebody else’s who they perceive as being similar.



Each one of those points of differentiation really has to be deep, right? They can’t be surface-level things we’re talking about. They can’t just be like “Oh, well, we’re really good at what we do.” That’s not a differentiator, it doesn’t really bring value in a specific way.



It’s not how many flavors your product comes in or how many features it has. Specific product benefits are sometimes confused with real differentiators.



Yeah, and we’ll get into when you can start identifying when you lack differentiation. But, what happens if someone can’t differentiate? If we’re saying that you have to have a unique, identifiable collection of deliverables, what if someone can’t change their deliverables in a unique and identifiable way? What can they do?


Then they would have the opportunity to look at being distinct in the eyes of their customers. So I think and we’ll get into this too. But if differentiation is a little bit more foundational, then distinction is more in line with intentionally creating the perception of how people see and react to our brand.



The way I define distinction is increasing the recognition or the visibility of a brand in its competitive environment. So that’s when you put everything on the table and you say, OK, this one looks or this one sounds different and distinct, you can pick it out of a crowd. So when someone says stand out of the stand out from the crowd –



– we say that all the time –



Yeah, it means to be distinct. And this is something that creative can really drive. And that’s part of the overarching goal of creative. To make things distinct. To differentiate something is more of a business goal, wouldn’t you say?



Yeah. One of the reasons why business goals come to mind is because if you’re not differentiated and if you’re not distinct, then you’re probably going to end up in price battles. You’re going to be bidding or people are going to be choosing you based on price or lowest price. They’re not going to be choosing you based on the true value and impact that you provide your customers.



That really gets down to the root of why is differentiation or distinction important. But why is that a problem? If you lack differentiation, if you lack distinction, what are you really losing? I would say that that’s pricing power. When you hear that people are racing to the bottom, trying to get the lowest price, that’s what happens when you’re not distinct. Where a customer can’t pick you out from your competitors, they look at the only thing they can pick out. And that would be price.



If you can’t differentiate with price, can you differentiate with customer service? A lot of people that we work with say “that’s how we stand out, that’s our value proposition, that’s how we’re different and better than the other people that we compete with.” They preach customer service, customer service, customer service; but it’s really hard to measure that.



I think that this is where we get to customer service itself is too broad, in my mind. When you say we do the best customer service, I would say that that’s not a point of differentiation. That is something that people actually care about because everyone cares about service, of course, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they know what you’re talking about. So if you’re talking about customer service, I would go deeper and say, Well, what specifically do you do that is customer service oriented that moves the needle forward in a different way.



It’s almost like the exercise of asking “why” two or three times to get to that deeper level for your organization, specifically or for the people that you’re trying to attract. What does customer service mean to them, and why? What specifically to them would resonate?



And that goes a long ways, right? Because you can offer great customer service, your customer or your competitor can offer great customer service, but you do different types of customer service. You offer different pieces of deliverables that you give, which goes a long way to understanding how people are. So it’s really interesting to say you can go on other things when it comes to being differentiated. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a product where you say, “Oh, well we give them this pencil versus a pen”, it can be a different type of service.



So if being differentiated, if being distinct, helps your company in all kinds of ways, if that is true, and if the problem is that a lot of businesses and organizations are trying to solve and achieve that level of distinction, my guess is that they recognize that isn’t the actual problem. They’re not necessarily trying to solve for becoming more distinct, they’re probably solving for shorter-term symptoms.



And those symptoms come up all the time. So we’ve actually pulled three of the most common ones that we hear from clients that are industry agnostic. Right, where we say, Oh, that’s a red flag, this red flag determines that they might have a differentiation problem or a distinction problem. That they’re not unique in the eyes of their customers.



I’m looking at the list here, too, and it’s interesting because the first one is external. One of the most common things that we hear people complaining about is that their messaging isn’t working or that their messaging is hyper targeted on the features and the benefits of their product, instead of telling the brand story.



Yeah. And I think the most common thing is when you hear people say “Our messaging is just awful”. A lot of times it’s like, “I can’t even look at our website because when I read it, it’s not even close to what, what we say, it just seems slimey, or maybe there’s a couple of things in there that you’re just embarrassed to read it out loud.



It sounds like everybody else. It’s filled with a lot of industry terms and acronyms and abbreviations that I don’t even know what half of these things mean anymore.



It can be very unapproachable. I mean, there’s there’s so many different things.



And nobody on our team is on the same board and says the same message in the same way, everybody’s making it up in the way that they see.



Yep, and that’s not cohesive. So one big thing that I pulled out is how we know that we have differentiation problem or distinction problem is the messaging focuses on the features, right? And the best example that I can pull from this is toothpaste. When you look at toothpaste, every single product says they have a magnificent feature or benefit or flavor or quality. But at the end of the day, it’s still toothpaste. It’s still the same deliverable, and that’s where we start to get the understanding between, OK, so toothpaste is a commodity. And how do they stand out? How does Colgate or Crest or all these other brands sell more than generic brands like Target or Walmart? How do they do that? That’s with distinction! So it’s pulling these things, it’s building a little bit more of a story in there, but being distinct in the way that they approach the selling of it. So that’s a good example. What’s the second example that we do for a red flag?



Another red flag is when customers complain at the lack of traction in their marketing efforts. Are websites not being found enough or are we not closing on enough opportunities? Are our sales are maybe lagging a little bit? We’re pumping all this money into pay per click advertising, and we’re just not seeing the results that we’ve been promised.



Yeah. Well, and that comes with the whole side of you can track those things and there’s an industry standard, right? Normally when you put out pay per click ads and you come through and you go, well, the standard should be that we get a conversion rate of X, Y or Z; so if we don’t get that conversion rate, what’s going on? And if we see that trend across multiple different campaigns between pay per click, between different sales approaches, between all this other stuff, it might result in that you’re just not viewed as distinct or differentiated based on other people. Or you’re not speaking to the right audience.



So it’s a messaging problem, a differentiation problem, and it’s a distinction problem. But how often do customers self-evaluate to the point where they realize that they have a uniqueness perception issue, not a “Well, we’re just marketing in the wrong channel or we need to spend more money,” issue.



This is where it becomes the big difference between just keep putting out, just keep putting out things. It’s all about volume. It’s not necessarily about volume. If you’ve been putting out the volume with finding no results. So I think the biggest question here, if you do come across this in your organization where you have frequent and effective marketing campaigns, I would stand back and say, OK, so what are our competitors saying and what do they look like and what is their offer compared to ours? Is it just the same, or are we just static noise out there? But it’s an interesting exercise to do.



For the third one, we shift to the internal audience. It’s actually surprising to me how often we hear from our customers who we help from a branding standpoint complain about the challenges that they have in attracting new employees. I had one conversation recently where the customer was complaining that a couple of his employees had left for equal opportunities; same pay, same role, same structure. But they went to another company and they felt like their pay was competitive. Their environment, they felt, was a good one. And he didn’t. He couldn’t understand what was the cause of that type of movement between staffers.



Yeah, and the differentiation there or the distinction as a big impact, right? We’re saying, well, what differentiates you as an organization internally? This is where we get the interesting conversation about branding and marketing and how that plays out internally is just as impactful as externally. So when we’re talking to customers or current clients or ongoing clients that are like, Hey, we’re just finding this to be a big problem, it almost always comes back to, OK, so how are you different than anyone else? And if you aren’t any different, how can we visually or verbally make you feel or sound different? What story can we help you tell that’s a little bit different than those competitors?



Well, there are two sides to what you just said. If I was looking for a career change and I had two opportunities in front of me and from a salary compensation package, role title, et cetera, the things that were written up in that offer were apples to apples, then what would be the thing that would tip the scales and incentivize me to choose one over the other? And if one of those is part of that distinction portion that you just described that I think would have attracted me to that place in the first place, that messaging, that voice, what they look like, what the brand represents. I think the other side that would actually help me make my choice would be a more foundational, cultural, value-driven side, a much deeper side of what that business stands for. And that’s the true differentiation.



There are people out there, and I think this is a really, really interesting example, the people who say: “well money is king; salary is king.” I’d push back and say, well look at nonprofits. You can get paid good money to work at a nonprofit, but a lot of them don’t have the budget to pay people really well. But they stand for something and they have a mission to go do good and they can attract some pretty great talent.



They attract people that share that same vision and are passionate about helping play a key role in that organization’s quest for doing that thing that they’re working towards.



So, the top three things that we’re saying are red flags. We have one, messaging focuses on features; talked about toothpaste a little bit there. Two, frequent, ineffective marketing campaigns, so you just keep putting money into an engine that’s not getting you anywhere. And then three is difficult; attracting new employees. So we’re talking about people leaving, maybe people just aren’t accepting the role and going somewhere else, and this is all compared to your competitors and your landscape.



Yeah, it’s your brand is just as important to your internal culture, to your internal team, as it is to your current customers and your prospective customers.



All right. So then if those are the problems, if those are the red flags, those are the big things that we’re seeing that kind of tip the scales and say, “Oh, we got a problem here”. What are the three things that we could start with that might help solve those problems to get to the end of lack of differentiation or distinction?



Well, the first one’s definitely foundational. It’s part of what we here refer to as your brand foundation. And within that core foundational piece, what would truly help somebody while both differentiate and also make sure that they are distinct in the eyes of, well, everybody? This would be what we call a positioning strategy.



Yep, and that positioning strategy at the high level of what positioning is, it’s basically making sure that you’re situated in the minds of your consumers or the internal people. So we’re saying prospective employees, but let’s say in this case, consumers; where are you situated in their mind? So the best example I can do is when we have to access grid and say, all right, prices on one side, services on the other, which is the most basic way to do it and say we’re a high service, high price people. That means you’re positioned in that upper quadrant, right? So for us, it’s taking those axes and putting our own labels on them. It’s not always about price and service. There are other things that we offer. There are other things that we can do to position ourselves versus other people. So that’s why when we get to, well, price shouldn’t always matter. And this is where if you have a good positioning strategy, you can really handle the price and you can price premium at that point.



Yeah, your pricing for the value of the work that you’re providing, not necessarily just on time and materials. What I love about the positioning exercise in the way that you’ve described it is, just as much as you’ve described the 25 percent (or even less; in this case, a quadrant of four) the twenty-five percent of the entire audience that you focused in on, you’ve also identified the 75 percent of that audience that you are not focused on.



Exactly. And I think that it’s interesting to start looking at what do we not do? What do we not accept? What kind of products do we not put out there? If we’re up in that top quadrant where we’re all about the high price, high service or high price, high quality; however you want to do it. Then you’re not going to be making value products down at the very bottom right. You’re not going to be making the cheapest and the least expensive to try to get it out in the mass market as possible. That’s just not how you work. Which then starts to get a little bit of clarity and a little bit of focus about who you are. So this positioning strategy doesn’t necessarily go into all those different things, but you start getting a taste of, OK, what is this company? What do they kind of stand for and who are they?



It makes it a lot easier to say specifically what you do and who you serve, and it prevents that story from being watered down. But what do you say to somebody who pushes back and says, but if I only focus on 25 percent of this potential target market, what about all the opportunities that I’m missing out on by not making my story, my message, my approach broader? And by going after everybody, am I going to miss out?



Well, at our client level, I would say that standing for something is better than standing for nothing, and being for someone is better than being for everyone. In the sense of, you can’t sell 100 percent of that top twenty-five percent, right? You’re going to get a little piece of all of them. So instead, what I’m saying is to focus on one set of those consumers and expand the opportunities within that instead of opening your doors and watering them down. When you say watering down, I’d think directly to the case; so now we’re not really special for anyone.



Now we’re less viable to the people that we actually are the best fit with. In their eyes.



Yeah, and we want to get to that minimum viable audience.



And the other benefit of getting to that minimal audience, this hyper focus, what that does is effectively reduces all kinds of competition that we have. If we can become the only ones who do this, then we become much more valuable. I mean, one of my favorite analogies is if you have a leaky dishwasher and it’s leaking water all over the place, do you hire somebody who is specifically skilled and specializes in plumbing? Or do you hire a general contractor that does plumbing, electrical, drywall, maybe some landscaping and snow removal? Do you want the best; who does exactly what you need? Or do you want somebody who might do what you need?



They’re good with duct tape. So, positioning is huge, right? And that’s kind of the key to everything. If you can position yourself well, you’re on a great path forward. So what about the second thing here? What else can people do?



Well, once you are positioned, then it’s telling that story. Telling the story of you, of your organization, in a fresh light way that sounds unique to you. Sounds different than how other people are saying it in a way that will help you more effectively engage specifically with that identified focus market that you’re looking at.



So when you and I say story, story means everything. But also it means nothing to a lot of people. But when I think of what you’re talking about, telling that fresh story, telling a different story than other people, it’s figuring out what emotional things we need to stand for. But also, how are we articulating ourselves? What’s that tone we’re using? How do we want to come across when people read our content or listen to what we say? How do we want to be seen or how do we want to be heard? I guess is the better way to say it, and those things go a long way. So it’s not just taglines, it’s not just those high-level messages that get put out, but it’s when you read through a website, you get a taste of who they kind of are. And if you don’t and you read through someone’s website and you don’t really have any kind of personality, you don’t really understand how the direction they’re coming from, I feel like that gives an unauthentic approach to their organization.



The way that people consume websites, they’re probably not going to read on for very long if they can understand what you’re doing anyway. You brought up a really good point. In our minds the way that we approach branding, there is a difference between story and messaging. Story is what you as an organization stand for, what you believe in, what the flag that you plant represents. Messaging is the language and the words on a tactical level that become tag lines, headlines, elevator speeches, et cetera, that do the hard work of communicating the story.



Yeah, that’s exactly what it is. You said something about reading your website and we work with a writer with a fantastic quote; what’s the quote about reading body copy?



Jeff is his name, and Jeff’s quote is: “if somebody takes the time of reading the copy on a website or in any material for that matter, they should be rewarded. They should be rewarded for haven taken the time to actually digest this.”



And it’s interesting when you work with writers on stuff; you draw them in with the visuals, but you really hammer it home with the messaging. And I think that’s so true. OK, the third and final thing we’ll touch on today, but what else can they do to be differentiated or distinct in the eyes of their audience?



It’s your look. It’s the visual aspect of your brand. It’s having a unique look. That could be where your logo might come into play, your color palette, the imagery that you use, the graphics and visuals that you use to support the telling of the story. We were working with a bank recently and in a quick competitive analysis of just looking at the top six or eight local banks and co-ops that they were competing against, at a glance just by looking at the home pages of their websites and their logos, we determined that I think eight out of the eight that we looked at were all blue and pretty much the same shade of blue. And I get it blue stands for security, trust, everything that we think of. But if your goal was to help your brand stand out and to be visually distinctive and to reflect the differentiation that you truly believe you are based and rooted in, then I would probably pick a different color. Still, one that’s authentic, but I don’t want to look the same.



Absolutely. And you can still stand for trust and you can still stand for all those different things that Navy Blue stands for, right? I think the hard part with a lot of (colors is such an interesting one to talk about) visuals, we find that a lot of people do things with preference first, right? A lot of clients have a knee-jerk reaction on preference; personal preference. And it’s not about personal preference, it’s about the reason why we’re doing these things. So if you pick a color just because you like it, then that’s an issue.



If it’s color that just happens to dominate your own personal wardrobe because your skin tone and the color of your eyes, et cetera, look good in that specific palette, even if you’re the owner, founder or visionary of that specific organization and it was rooted in your own personal “why” to begin with, the translation of what you and that organization stands for, it’s bigger than you. It’s bigger than you as an individual, and it needs to represent that story and communicate that in a way that resonates with people. And it can’t resonate with people if you’re just in the sea of looking exactly like everybody else.



My favorite moment ever when we reveal creative to clients is when you get the “AHA!” moment and they’re like, this isn’t really even my style, but I love it because it’s perfect for this. You start to see the organization as itself, as it’s its own brand. It’s not you. This is a part of detaching yourself from the thing that we’re going to change. Look, it has to be authentic to you, but it can’t be personal preference.



We had an opportunity to rebrand a local golf course. When we first started talking with them, they had identified their primary competitor, which was in their same neighborhood, that they thought they could draw some golfers over to this place, to come and check it out. And their personal preference was that their new logo and their new updated brand should look just like the competitor that they’d identified because they liked the competitor, they looked up to them. And frankly, the other course is doing great business. Our challenge back to them, though, was if you look just like them and you take kind of a “me too” attitude (and you’re not like them at your core) then your position isn’t like theirs. What you’re about and the spirit of this golf course is completely different from what that golf course stands for. And luckily, they took our strategic advice and they went in a different direction. And within the first year of launching the new brand, I believe they had a record number of golfers. They sold a record number of merchandise.



Yeah, it’s not surprising, right? Because if you were to golf, you go and look at these places and pull them up and you go, “OK, that’s kind of what it looks like, that’s kind of what it looks like,” if there’s something in there that catches your eye, whether it’s the photography of the course, whether it’s the way the website’s laid out, whether it’s the way they talk about golf on their website, whether they’re super passionate and they have emotion with it, or for this specific example, maybe the logo looks completely different. It’s not a bunch of prairie grass and trees or birds or animals or deer or cattails. But it’s completely different and it makes people stop, and that’s kind of the point. I think it’s really great to see a local (and sometimes we work with clients that are now $200 million all the way down to one million dollars a year in annual revenue) and to me, it’s the small ones, the small companies, small organizations that we work with were those positioning decisions are hard. Those are really hard because you’ve been doing it the way you’ve always been doing it. It’s hard to change the way you look because you’ve always looked like that. And so it’s a risk, but it’s great for me to be on that journey with them and see them kind of come across from the very first meeting saying, “We just need to be new, we just need to be like everyone else,” to at the end of the day, they’re like, “I’m proud of who we are, because who we are, is who no one is.” Which is great.



I think a good thing for people to take away is when their organization is having an issue, is to take the time to step back and analyze that issue, to determine if that issue is a symptom or if it’s the root problem. And to make sure that what they’re doing is solving for the root problem.



And it’s hard. It’s hard to self-diagnose.



Yeah, but your brand affects way more many more aspects of your business than you might realize.



Absolutely. All right. Until next time, thank you.

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Are You Different or Distinct? Episode 01

It's not about being the only option, it's about being the right option. Join Derek and Tucker as they discuss Differentiation & Distinction.