Why Differentiate

Because corporate me-tooism, monkey see, monkey do, and copycatting will get you exactly what your business has earned: a cloak of invisibility.

According to experts Al and Laura Ries, creating a new category and then branding that category in such a way that your brand is perceived as the innovator and category leader is the best approach to winning the marketing game.

To create a new category, however, you have to think “different,” not “better.”

Imagine your product or service is on a specific highway. For this example, we’ll call it the “energy drink highway.” Red Bull created the energy drink highway back in 1984. While it’s not always the case, Red Bull was the first into the category and remains first in the mind as the quintessential definition of an energy drink. It fits what I call the “noun test”: When I say “energy drink,” you say, “____ _____.”

So when Coke and Pepsi saw the energy drink highway becoming popular, they couldn’t just sit back and watch some upstart company chip into their leadership of the beverage marketplace. Each juggernaut launched its own energy drink, but they traveled down the same highway. They went in the same direction as Red Bull. Amp Energy and Full Throttle attempted to dethrone the king with their better distribution systems, but it was a copycat move at best.

Remember what I said above: The best way to differentiate your business is to create a new category. And to create a new category, you have to think “different,” not “better.”

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. I call that “taking an exit” from the energy drink highway. Monster was still headed in the same direction as Red Bull, but they had diverged from the main thoroughfare of the highway and took the off ramp to success.

Then along came 5-Hour Energy Shots. They, too, took an exit from the energy drink highway by differentiating with packaging size. 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. But dozens of other companies have also found some success by exiting the copycat highway and developing energy drinks targeted at athletes, hard-core gamers, and other niche audiences. Then there’s Bomba energy drink, which comes in a unique glass container shaped like a hand grenade. (Probably not TSA-friendly!)

Another way to exit the highway is by creating a diverged category. Code Blue is trying to create a new category called the recovery drink. Their scientific formulation is said to go beyond hydration by replenishing vital nutrients and detoxifying your body.

Exiting from the highway is a powerful way to differentiate your business. But there’s an even more commanding marketplace move: The U-turn. When your competition zigs, you should zag. In other words, do the opposite.

So what’s the opposite of an energy drink? A relaxation drink, of course. Enter two participants who have taken the U-turn and 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.

Ries’ Law of the Opposite: If you’re shooting for second place, your strategy is determined by the leader (Red Bull). By positioning yourself against the leader, you take business away from all the other alternatives to No. 1.

Ries’ Law of Attributes: For every attribute, there is an opposite, effective attribute. Search for an attribute that allows you to play off the leader while maintaining relevance with your target market.

Some other wisdom on why differentiate:

“If you want to win, you must know what you're selling, find a way to prove that what you're selling is different, and distill this difference into a focused and compelling idea that can drive and unite everything associated with your brand." -Allen P. Adamson, BrandSimple

“Preference is a perishable commodity; you must constantly refresh consumers’ minds about the things that make you unique, why those things are important, and why they should buy your brand over someone else’s. Not doing so can be expensive.” -Sergio Zyman, Renovate Before You Innovate

“If you don’t tell consumers how to choose, they are either not going to choose, or they are going to choose based on the one thing they do understand: price.” -Sergio Zyman, The End of Marketing As We Know It

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

Here are 7 Ways to Differentiate

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Even More Ways to Differentiate

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