More Ways to Differentiate

One of the common questions I hear in branding for small businesses is, “But how do I differentiate?” and “How can I make my businesses different from the competition?” While I agree that it’s sometimes tough to get out of the me-too mindset, it’s critical to getting noticed and gives your customers and prospects a reason to choose you over the competition.

“Differentiation is one of the most important strategic and tactical activities in which companies must constantly engage.”
–Theodore Levitt, Thinking About Management

To succeed in business, you have to think “different,” not “better.”

Here are more ways to differentiate to get you started...

Differentiate by Audience
Who is it that your business is trying to serve? Who should you serve? Who can you serve that will make your business stand out from the competition?

A Conservative Café is a coffee shop for, wait for it, conservatives. According to their website, A Conservative Cafe's advancement of traditional American values does not involve an endorsement of any political party’s agenda; instead, we recognize both Republican and Democratic citizens can share these traditional American values, and seek a public place to meet with like-minded individuals and their families. Regardless, it’s “coffee served right.”

Speaking of conservatives, you don’t need to be as overt as A Conservative Café in order to benefit from narrowing your target market through your choice of advertising channels. For instance, ProFlowers and Carbonite (computer back-up services), among others, are openly courting conservatives by concentrating their advertising on TV and radio shows that cater to conservatives.

Differentiate by Geography
If ever there was a commodity, it’s water. So Fred Water differentiated itself from other bottled waters by focusing solely on New Yorkers. Leveraging social networks and a fun, hip brand personality, Fred Water says that it’s “Fortified with irony.” And also, “He's got a blackbelt in hanging out. His name is Fred, he's water and he's here to rescue us from boredom.”

Note that this is a different strategy than simply being a local business. The Fred Water differentiator is based on consciously choosing not to expand right out of the box and go head to head with the big guns in the nationwide water marketplace.

Differentiate by Doing Good
Lots of businesses tap into social consciousness by aligning their brand with a good cause. Cases in point…

  • When you buy a pair of shoes from Toms another pair is donated to a child in need. Toms shoes plans to give away 1 million shoes by 2012, and in doing so, create a powerhouse shoe business.
  • Australian company, Baby Teresa, manufactures and sells a variety of 100 percent cotton onesies for babies, and, for each one purchased, donates another to a baby in need.
  • IKEA’s solar cell-powered Sunnan LED desk lamp retails for $19.99 and for every unit sold, another is donated to UNICEF to give to children without electricity in refugee camps and villages in remote areas.
  • Sage Hospitality is encouraging people to complete 8 hours of volunteer service in exchange for big discounts off published room rates in their 52 hotels. To take advantage of the “Give a Day, Get a Night” promotion, customers simply present a letter from the organization they worked for.
  • Servus is a Canadian credit union hopes to start a kindness movement by handing out CDN 200,000 in ten-dollar bills, giving 20,000 people the opportunity to create a Feel Good Ripple by spending the money on someone else. Participants write stories of their kindness to post online.
  • Twitter’s owners also have a wine label, Fledgling Wine. For every bottle of wine sold, $5 will go to Room to Read, a charity that organizes literacy programs for children around the world.
  • Chicago’s Hotel Burnham launched an initiative called “Casual Blue”. A $10 room credit is given to guests who leave a pair of old blue jeans, which are then donated to local charities.
  • Odwalla Juice will plant a tree in a state park and allow customers to decide where they'd like the tree planted. The company plans to spend about $200,000 in trees. In 2009, 11 state park systems participated in a similar program.These business models not only practice cause-based differentiation, but also spark a lot of well-deserved media and social buzz.

Differentiate by Product Attribute
This is one of the most common ways to differentiate. Just walk through your local grocery store and you’ll see hundreds of examples of businesses that stand out from the competition by highlighting or showcasing a product attribute that they can claim leadership in, be the first in, or demonstrate a new technology.

Listerine is a “medicine-y” mouthwash, so it must be working. Crest owns the cavity prevention attribute in the jam-packed toothpaste market. But one of my favorite examples is Dawn Dish Washing liquid.

Dawn has always been tough on grease but gentle on your hands. And demonstrating that it works on baby animals covered in oil from industrial spills hammers home that idea. And here’s the thing: While the Dawn brand keeps getting stretched over more and more line extensions (Dawn Direct Foam, Dawn Simple Pleasures, Dawn PLUS with Power Scrubbers, Dawn Hand Renewal with Olay Beauty, Dawn PLUS Bleach Alternative, and more) the brand stays true to itself by remaining about its differentiating attribute: tough on grease but gentle on your hands.

A product attribute can also be an unexpected element…

Differentiate by an Unusual Ingredient
I grew up with Lava soap. There was always a bar of the gritty, pumice soap in our downstairs bathroom. Turns out that Lava has been around since 1893 when coal miners and oil rig workers depended on the power of pumice in Lava to cut through the toughest grease and grime.

What gives a brand like Lava staying power? A relevant and meaningful differentiating factor (pumice), rock-solid adherence to the brand positioning (they never tried to water down the brand with meaningless line extensions), and a memorable name with direct linkage to the brand promise.

Differentiate by Daypart
The most well known example of using daypart to differentiate a product or service is Vick’s NyQuil and DayQuil. But look around and you’ll notice others. Aviara, a nutrition company based out of San Diego, California, offers an AM morning health drink and a PM evening health drink.

And Life NK has Jump Start Bath & Shower Gel to, presumably, start your day, and Ultimate Unwind for evening time. Although I can think of some days when I might use Ultimate Unwind in the morning.

Differentiate by Ergonomics
How many different brands of can openers are out there? OXO differentiated—and stood out—by developing an entire line of Good Grips products designed, well, a little differently; by making them consumer friendly and easy to hold and use. With a mission dedicated to providing innovative consumer products that make everyday living easier, OXO has developed lines of cooking tools, household cleaning tools, barware, and garden tools.

And there are plenty of other products out that focused on creating a better experience through ergonomics. In what is probably the longest, most convoluted product name I’ve ever seen, another example of a product that differentiated by ergonomics is the Ames True Temper Avalanche Ergo Plus 18-Inch Mountain Mover Poly Snow Shovel. (Ask for it by name!)

Differentiate by Branding a Commodity
What do eggs and socks have in common? They’re both commodities—making it notoriously difficult to stand out in the marketplace.

But Eggland’s Best managed to elevate the humble egg by doing things a bit differently and breaking our of the commodity mold. They are reported to be nutritionally superior to ordinary eggs because their hens are given a special, unique feed. Also Eggland’s Best eggs contain ten times more Vitamin E than ordinary eggs, 100 mg of Omega 3, and 25% less saturated fat. Finally, their goal is to have the freshest eggs possible in the supermarket.

But what about the socks? Well here’s a story I’m a little embarrassed to tell. I was at the gym one day and while dressing in the locker room—always an awkward place to strike up a conversation—I casually looked at the guy next to me, also dressing, and noticed his socks had gold toes. I knew that only one sock manufacturer makes socks with gold toes, and that’s Goldtoe.

Not knowing what else to say, I blurted, “Nice socks!”

What I meant, of course, was that I recognized his socks from the gold reinforcing yarn sewn into the toe. From its reputation alone, I knew that Goldtoe socks were durable and well made. It’s a classic visual “brand signal” differentiating Goldtoe from every other brand of men’s dress sock on the market.

Goldtoes’ powerful branding and a reputation that precedes it (right into the locker room at gym), has given the brand huge market share; Goldtoe represents more than one-half of all department store sales of men's dress socks in the United States.

Differentiate by Materials and Methods
Let’s talk about bottled water again—notoriously difficult to differentiate. But Schin Water in Brazil makes plastic bottles into t-shirts. The brand wanted to raise awareness about the importance of recycling by using unconventional means. A company transforms the plastic, though a process called polymerization, into polyester fibers that are then used to make T-shirts. It takes ten 300-ml bottles to create enough fibers for one shirt. Then, Alexandre Sesper, a Brazilian artist, created designs for the shirts with pro-recycling messages.

Duluth Trading Co.—known for their innovative work apparel and products—has developed Fire Hose pants. Even the name expresses the toughness and durability of these 100% cotton canvas work pants. With triple-stitched seams and double-layer cuffs and waistband, Duluth dares you to wear 'em out!

Differentiate by Using Humor
Speaking of Duluth Trading Co., how about their new Ballroom™ Jeans? If you think they’re named for a formal dance hall, think again. The tagline of these work pants is, “Crouch without the Ouch,” and a specially designed gusset in the crotch means they’re extra comfortable for working men.

Tears of a clown? Dead Happy is a clown funeral service that will let your loved one go with a smile. Gerry Perry said that the idea for came to him when he was thinking about how he would like to be remembered. “I was talking to some friends and joked that I'd like to be buried in a clown costume,” he said. “Then I thought about the idea of having clowns at funerals.” Gerry was surprised at the number of people who told him they would prefer if their funeral were a happy occasion, and Dead Happy was born.

How about just a funny name? Boudreaux's Butt Paste is a skin cream used to treat skin ailments such as diaper rash, minor burns, and insect bites. But the product has gained notoriety, press, and lots of buzz mainly due to its unusual and humorous name.

Differentiate by Packaging
I have one word for you: Pringles. ‘Nuf said.

How about Dutch Boy paint in the non-drip plastic containers? It’s the only paint I’ll buy because I loathe the traditional, drippy aluminum paint cans.

Differentiate by Distribution Channel
Voce is a premium wireless provider that isn’t looking to sell mobile phones to the whole world. Voce targets only upscale users with the finest-quality handsets, a simple, albeit pricy, flat-rate plan, and an exclusive concierge service—24 /7 live customer support. Every call to Voce is answered by a real, live human being—with no annoying phone trees.

Because of their conscious decision of who not to target, Voce is able to align its offerings (high-end handsets), its service (Voce Personal Assistance) and its retail locations (boutiques in Beverly Hills, California, and at Neiman Marcus) with its preferred audience. You will not find Voce phones or plans at WalMart or even Target.

This distribution-channel targeting is what keeps Voce from simply becoming another wireless face in the crowd and from wasting marketing dollars on reaching people who can’t and won’t become customers.

Differentiate by Size
Red Bull is the undisputed leader in the energy drink category. When Coke and Pepsi wanted to play, they launched Amp Energy and Full Throttle and attempted to dethrone the king with their better distribution systems, but it was a copycat move at best. The first energy drink to make a dent in Red Bull’s leadership was Monster. It came in a monster-size can, and so was differentiated from the mini-can leader. Then along came 5-Hour Energy Shots—a two-ounce shot rather than a traditional beverage.

In the energy drink wars, the three leaders are Red Bull, Monster, and 5-Hour Energy.

Differentiate by Being the Opposite
What’s the opposite of an energy drink? A relaxation drink, of course. Enter two participants who have created a new, reciprocal category as a way to differentiate in a crowded marketplace.

Launched in August 2009 and claiming “euphoric relaxation”, Mary Jane’s Relaxing Soda uses Fijian kava extract, which the company claims mirrors the effects of alcohol without the negative side effects. The soda also contains passion flower extract, a calming herb used to treat anxiety and insomnia.

Similarly, Slow Cow, from Canada, is positioned as a “relaxing, anti-energy drink”, promoting the benefits of de-stress rather than speeding up.

Differentiate by a Diverged Category
Code Blue is trying to create a new beverage category called the recovery drink. Their scientific formulation is said to go beyond hydration by replenishing vital nutrients and detoxifying your body.

Differentiate by Ultimate Personalization
Vessel is attempted to create the Make-Your-Own Drink Category—the ultimate in personalized beverages. It's Your Drink and is exactly what the name implies: a system for you to create a drink that's yours and yours alone by combining flavors and ingredients. Will Vessel be able to stay ahead of the competition in the hotly-contested beverage space by being all things to all people?

Differentiate by Vertically Slicing Your Audience
Even an iconic brand like Harley-Davidson can reinvent itself by remaining true to its roots, but appealing to niche audiences through creative marketing and social media approaches. Once the domain of inner-rebel and CEOs, Harley is reaching out to younger demographics, women, and Hispanics—each on their own turf and in their own “language.”

Differentiate by Focusing on the Experience
Starbucks’ focus on the “romance and theatre” of the coffeehouse was essential to its rapid rise. While the company has lost its way—more than once—they’re beginning to realize what brought them to the party: the coffeehouse experience. In a corporate sea change, customers will once again smell fresh coffee grounds and hear grinders whirring all day adding to the in-store ambiance of Starbucks.

Differentiate Around a Story or Myth
The Kraken Black Spiced Rum is the newest offering from Proximo Spirits and blended with over 11 secret spices. The rum takes its name from the mythical sea beast, which is said to have wreaked havoc with tall ships and rum running vessels throughout history. The rick black color takes its hue from the mysterious ink that, as legend has, the Kraken covered its prey with during fierce battles at sea. The bottle helps support the storytelling of this fun brand.

Differentiate by Being Controversial
Watching the Travel Channel recently, I discovered an unusual restaurant—unlikely and certainly not for everyone. But you can't deny that, from a branding perspective, they've nailed it. The Heart Attack Grill is exactly what they say they are. The menu is filled with on-target offerings (like the triple bypass burger). They even let people over 350 lbs. eat free. Plus the wait staff wears doctor and nurse outfits. When a brand gets everything right and “markets outrageously,” and creates “dramatic differentiation,” they can generate a ton of free press. All by being controversial.

GoDaddy.com remains a controversial, but perennial advertiser on the Super Bowl broadcast. With their racy starlets, like Danica Patrick, the brand has become a leader in domain registration and hosting services.

Cowgirls Espresso managed to differentiate in the uber-crowded coffee marketplace of Seattle by having its baristas dress in bikinis and other provocative clothing.

Differentiate by Targeting Grown-ups
How about The Icecreamists, a UK ice cream brand that has positioned itself using premium, X-rated flavors. The Sex Pistol is the most recent and is available exclusively at The Icecreamists' pop-up shop in London's Selfridges department store. The Icecreamists proclaim that the ice cream formulation is “so potent” that sales are limited to one per customer.

Philips recently unveiled the latest addition to its “relationship care” line of adult toys. The Dual Sensual Massager includes devices for both partners in a relationship.

Wine Cellar Sorbets sells a range of unique sorbets with varietal wines as the main ingredient. The range features traditional vineyard flavors including Sangria Rojo, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Rosé, Riesling and Champagne.

Differentiating by Specialization
Imagine you were starting a laundry detergent business today. How would you stand out from the Tides, Alls, Gains, and Purexes of the world? How could you possibly compete with the Proctor & Gamble and Arm & Hammer powerhouses?

You could specialize. Win Detergent focuses on getting stubborn odors out of high-performance athletic fabrics. Most liquid detergents do not target embedded odors and even after gym clothes are washed. The odors cling to the fibers. After a few workouts, even the best high tech fabrics typically develop a musty odor caused by bacteria attracted to sweat soaked fabric.

Win Detergent's powerful oxy cleaning technology eliminates the embedded sweat molecules and odors that overwhelm the fabric.

Will Win Detergent win marketshare by battling head-to-head the big brands? No, they will make inroads into niche markets, like health clubs and gyms, through specialization and differentiation and probably get acquired.

Differentiation on Gender
Okay, so we’re all familiar with Secret antiperspirant’s “Strong enough for a man, but made for a woman,” positioning. And there are countless other examples of products and services differentiated on gender. But that aspect can still be pushed to create a unique position in the marketplace.

How about macho cupcakes? Butch Bakery was born when David Arrick felt it was time to combine a masculine aesthetic to a traditionally cute product—the cupcake. When a magazine article mentioned that cupcakes were a combination of everything "pink, sweet, cute, and magical", he felt it was time to take action, and butch it up. He decided to create a company where "Butch meets Buttercream".

Differentiating by Delivery Method
Le Whif, makers of inhalable chocolate(!), have recently launched a coffee inhaler. Seriously? Inhalable? The coffee “hits” consist of powder inside lipstick-like containers that are pulled open, inserted in the mouth, and inhaled. The sticks are sold individually for $3 or in boxes of three for $8 -- and each stick delivers 100 milligrams of caffeine, the equivalent of a cup of espresso.

How can your product (or even a service) be uniquely delivered to create a marketplace distinction?

The Wind Up on Differentiation
Aside from some buzz generated by a quirky business story (and there will be some), make sure there is an actual demand for your product or service offering. Just being different for difference’s sake is no guarantee of success.

Will inhalable coffee or chocolate really resonate with the coffee and chocolate-loving public? Do masculine cupcakes really create a compelling expectation? Are men the "heavy users" of cupcakes? As Marlboro, Harley, and Nike are well aware, "Inside every man there are two men: the man he is and the man he wants to be." While I'm not convinced cupcakes represent the man anyone wants to be, you must create a compelling expectation for your offering.

Ask yourself these two critical questions: Is it relevant? Will people care?

See more Differentiation Examples here.

Return to Differentiate Effectively page.