December 18, 2023
Mike Fox

Beyond Differentiation

“How are we different, unique or special?”

This is the question brands are constantly asking themselves. It is also the same one they fire back to agencies about their own uniqueness and qualifications to help them build their brand.

Despite the good intentions of this question, the answer often gets simplified to this – deciding on a list of differentiators, which are often self-proclaimed.

The challenge of choosing and chasing after differentiators

For the undisciplined organization, branding has become a high-stakes game of one-upmanship, with a mindset of having to be bigger, better, faster, and more than the competition. Differentiators become a way in which to quickly compare and contrast us versus them.

This isn’t particularly helpful or accurate in framing a robust value proposition because differentiators are about where you play and what you’re playing with – right now. And the more you try to capture value from your competitors, the harder it is for consumers to tell you apart from your competitors.  

A hot second ago, some brands were – and maybe still are – trying to differentiate themselves with AI. To be first or novel in a new space with a new technology can be exciting. But it has a limited lifespan when it comes to brand differentiation. Eventually others will catch up, and what was once considered a unique brand position no longer exists.

As we see it, differentiators are like branding smoke signals – once competitors see them, they follow the smoke to find the fire. Then they replicate it by building their own version of that brand fire.  

Because our business vernacular places such value on speed with terms like hustle, momentum, running the race, sprint, agile, first, only, one-of-a-kind, and so on, it’s easy to see how a brand can default to differentiation. Find the white space, take the white space. But white spaces aren’t hard to see. That’s why the strategies that aid sprints to a white space have a short shelf-life.

This is why we believe being different isn’t as good as being distinctive, despite what the thesaurus says.

We’ll explain. The perpetual problem with differentiators is it’s an ongoing track race to find and define what’s next. And what it implies through speed and being first to offer a service or feature, it lacks in staying power.

To be clear, the job of discovering new and better ways that haven’t existed to this point – that’s pursuit of innovation and operational excellence. It is not the purpose of branding.

Becoming distinctive

When we look at Apple, we don’t think about differentiators – the what and the how – and we can thank Simon Sinek and his 2007 Ted talk for that, which catapulted him and the Start With Why framework to business leadership fame.

Is Apple in competition with other computer, laptop, tablet, and device makers? Phone and smartwatch manufacturers? Even music distribution services? Arguably, yes. And their features are often different from their competitors.

But it doesn’t compete on differentiators.

It doesn’t place a premium on being first (even when it is first to market) or speed. The company cares about a uniquely and culturally defined experience and aesthetic. It cares about excellence and performance in crowded commodity spaces.

Apple plays to win, but it cares equally as much about lasting – something that the computer makers Compaq and Gateway both failed to grasp while rising alongside Apple in the 1990s.

Distinct brands know who they are and why they exist.

They understand what it takes to be sought after and desired. They understand that everything the business does – every decision around people and process and purpose – is an intentional filter designed to deliver value.

To be distinct requires depth. It demands an understanding of internal teams, targeted audiences, and end users and customers – deep insights that ensure value is present and the company is best positioned to win.

To be distinct requires discipline. Distinction isn’t the campaign, it’s the long-term commitment over time. It wins the hearts and minds of employees, sustains that enthusiasm and feeds it continuously while seeking to win the trust and loyalty of its customers.

Don’t mistake distinction with the flashy campaign. Distinction is the solid foundation from which every good and valuable and on-brand campaign that wins is built upon. And, sometimes, on-brand can be flashy.

At Hyperquake we lean into the hard work of distinction – for ourselves and our clients.

There are no shortcuts, no brand hacks or quick fixes to becoming distinctive. And for this reason we do not chase after differentiators.

Rather we see our work as helping aspiring brands discover (and established brands rediscover) what’s often hiding in plain sight. We identify what’s difficult for our clients to see with the clarity that only comes from being immersed in brand building, from being a partner who can see and speak without some mystical shroud of how things have always been. It is a candid, truth-based process that, when complete, is impossible to replicate. It is that distinct.

   

Want to be distinctive? Lay a foundation that is uniquely and unquestionably yours, one that is not simply an overlay to existing best practices. Build a brand with a clear, unmistakable purpose. Then, with commitment and discipline, you’ll come to realize your brand’s potential is limitless.

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