3 Dimensions of Differentiation: Ways to Stand Out

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Being a little bit different can make all the difference.


Ninety-five percent of what you do as a direct multichannel merchant is exactly the same as everyone else in the business. The 5 percent that you do differently is your strategy. That's what sets you apart. It's the unique set of behaviors, processes, products, tools and customer amenities that distinguishes your brand from the others.


This idea, from branding guru Dan Herman, urges us to pay attention to the key elements of differentiation. I want to focus on the 5 percent you do that's different and strengthen it using simple creative thinking.


First dimension: Stop doing what everyone else is doing. If you want to differentiate yourself, to stand out in your crowded field of customer options, you have to do things differently. You need to deliberately do things in ways unlike those used by the other multichannel marketers that appeal to your consumer segment. If they use photo covers, use artwork. If they feature lots of home décor, go for apparel. If they're all 8-by-10-inch trim size, go horizontal. Do what makes sense for you and your customers, but do it in ways that distinguish you from the rest. And not in superficial ways like size, shape and artwork. Think deeply. Go for essentials.


For instance, if you bump into all your competitors at the same trade shows, explore new avenues for product discovery and selection. If your competitors have the same percent-off price promotion on the cover, find a unique promotion that offers value to your customers. If your competitors feature the same products, work with vendors to create custom items. If your competitors focus on home décor or some theme, emphasize the heart of your brand's meaning - go for social expression or feature a unique decor style.


This is not rocket science, but it is a first, baby step toward real differentiation. If you think these ideas are bonehead obvious, take a look at the catalogs and Web sites that cluster around certain themes. Notice how interchangeable they are. Consciously and deliberately look at the competition, understand your market and go after your customers in a way unlike the approach taken by others.


Second dimension: Do what you do better. This is the dumb idea of the year: Do what you do better. There is a powerful truth to the idea of going against the grain to stand out. All of us seek new, creative, innovative, unique products, processes and services to surprise and delight our customers. What if you pursued the opposite direction: No new innovation, just perfect greatness.


The heart of the idea is this: You have a few winners - maybe one product or concept that really started your company in the first place. Focus all your creative minds, money and talent on maximizing those winners. That's it. Starve research and development. Dry up brainstorm meetings. Let the experiments lie fallow. Go for the gold with everything you've got. Create, package, promote and execute your tried-and-true winning item(s) to absolute, remarkable perfection. Deliver the goods to customers with such flawless precision that they cannot help but comment on it.


In Kansas City we love our barbecue. By last count, there are 48 barbecue places in town, plus the American Royal International Barbecue contest, not to mention two or three local publications devoted to the smoking art. But the one place out of them all for barbecue pilgrims is Arthur Bryant's. It's in a run-down neighborhood. The lines are long. The tables are old. The servers are sometimes rude and slow. But the meat is to die for. I've had dreams about the sauce. They close the main storefront every January to make and season the sauce for the following year.


Bryant's is not focused on innovation. It's too busy smoking ribs and slathering on its time-honored, mind-boggling sauce. When you go, you want that sauce. Only the real stuff will do.


Perhaps you've heard of the store Rice to Riches in New York. It serves 24 flavors of rice pudding. That's all. Single portions are generous enough for two, but they'll put two flavors together in their wonderful, reusable packaging. Now, that is making the most of a passion to specialize and exceed all consumer expectations. Customers talk about a store that does one thing perfectly.


The idea here is clear: Mine your own special niche for all it's worth. You cannot help but be different, to go against the flow. In a way it is more creative to tease out all there is in an item your customer loves than to go far afield with blue-sky novelty.


Third dimension: Play a different game. The final "new" simple idea is to change the rules and play your own game. Abandon the accepted rules of competition and pursue your own direction by rethinking the premise behind your business model. This can be the hardest, riskiest direction. But as Seth Godin preaches in his book "Purple Cow," if you don't innovate in significant, remarkable ways, you're in a going-out-of-business mode.


Reverse the assumptions - compile the assumptions you base your business on ... then reverse them, take them away. And, finally, work together to find ways to make the reverse really work.


Assumptions: Your catalog mails to customers and prospects. It contains a selection of gift and useful seasonal and everyday items that will appeal to your customers and attract prospects. You fill orders as quickly and correctly as possible and send the items to your buyers. Then you follow up with offers for best customers to retain their loyalty. Good business plan.


Reverse assumptions: What if you don't mail catalogs to customers or prospects - what if you deliver sales sheets with just a few select items? What if you treat prospects totally differently - visiting them or simply sending them gifts to encourage interest?


What if your gift selection is not broad, but extremely narrow - depending on who receives it? What if each different customer segment receives a radically different personalized selection of items?


What if instead of selling the items, you rent them, the way Netflix does? What if you let customers fill their own orders, perhaps by sending them an assortment of items and letting them choose what they want to keep?


These are not all practical ideas, but they do question the premise and reverse the assumptions on which your business is built. This discipline can prove to be a rigorous mental exercise that breaks down some of our autopilot thinking. Reversing assumptions leads to new concepts, questions the given and makes a case for fresh thinking. This fresh thinking can lead to a new, uneven playing field where you are the only player.


Simple, creative thinking for catalogers and multichannel merchants is a way to rethink what we're about. This is a good way to start a conversation about the business model we want to build for our future. And it's the 5 percent that you do differently that will separate you from all the others.


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