Customer orientedA truism for any organization is that its customers have choices. They can chose from a range of products, services, and alternatives to satisfy their needs, from doing nothing to “do it yourself,” to doing it the most expensive way possible to finding a cheap alternative.

Like Standing in the School Yard: Pick Me, Pick Me!

Flash back to your childhood when you had to wait for teams to be chosen, thinking (or even going so far as to jump up and down shouting) “Pick me, pick me!” The customer has the advantage and the range of products and services are arrayed before them—with advertising, packaging, and the multitude of other marketing magic tricks—crying out “Pick me, pick me!”

So how does a business get the customer to choose you? The fact is, you first must stand out from the crowd of choices, and for all the right reasons. You must be able to connect with the customer and make it past the noise created (the chorus of “Pick me, pick me!”) of every other product and service that exists—not only those in direct competition or that are viable alternatives to what you are offering, but also every other category of product or service being offered to solve a need or desire.

As more and more product choices are offered in every category, the customer not only expects more choices, but more function. Unfortunately when the customer sees little difference between products and providers it becomes a commodities marketplace.

We like to think the differences in our product offerings are there (and they may be), but if they aren’t obvious to the customer they don’t matter.

So the saying, “Differentiate or die. is essentially “Differentiate or be a commodity. Differentiate or compete or price. Differentiate or be subject to the tyranny of choice.”

Choice Matters If You’re Different

If you’ve ever purchased a lottery ticket, you know you have two options for getting your numbers. You can let them be randomly generated for you or you can pick them yourself.

Customer choice essentially operates in the same manner. If you are a “commodity” you let the system pick for you, because in the marketplace, the customers sees everyone as the same. If you differentiate yourself, then you are able to pick the numbers yourself because you bring the customer to you.

Commodity Product Differentiation through Positioning and Message

Even if you have a “commodity” product, you don’t have to be the same as everyone else. You can stand out through how you do business, branding, or any number of non-product elements, so that choice comes back into play. It becomes about how you do business, treat and serve the customer, make the customer feel, and how the product makes the customers feel about themselves. Too often we are willing to settle for being viewed as the same as our defined competition or substitute products because we don’t feel we have a choice. We don’t have extra cash to spare for advertising campaigns that are more about being cute or shocking than selling the product.

If differentiation is about positioning and product message that makes you stand out from the commoditization evolution, then how does one stand out without advertising? The answer is in the elements of how you have chosen to differentiate. For example, if you are differentiating on the services you provide, then your message will be about services, and not through advertising that “says” you are different, but in how you do business which shows you are different. If you are positioning around convenience, then ensure that you are the most convenient provider for the market. Your differentiation is the marketing mechanism. You must differentiate: do things to stand out, then call attention to those things.

Differentiation: Walk the Walk, Then Talk the Talk

If you do advertise, then one more step in the differentiation process is to stop the commoditization of your advertising as well. Here’s an exercise to try: pick up a telephone book and turn to any part of the business listings. Now find a page that is filled with ads. Imagine switching the business names around amongst the ads. Could you? Do they all say just about the same thing about each of the businesses? Chances are they do. You are looking at commodity ads. Maybe yours was on that page. Wouldn’t it be nice if yours stood out and said something different? What if yours was the only one on the page that had meaning when a prospect turned to the page? How would that impact the business? Would you acquire more customers? Achieve more profits?

Differentiation is an evolutionary process in the minds of the customer and the marketplace, just as commoditization is. You begin to stand out from the crowd through the process of being different not at a physical product level, but at a “doing business” level, which becomes part of the “product package”. So go ahead; be different and thrive in the face of customer choice.


Copyright ©2008 Lea A. Strickland, F.O.C.U.S. Resource, Inc.

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