Without a doubt, positioning your brand starts with difference- but there are many ways to be different. In fact, any idiot can be different. The trick is to be different in a way that is highly relevant to your audience. Different in a way that creates competitive advantage. Advantage that is, over time, as sustainable as possible.
All of which to say- it’s not easy.
You’re playing the game to win. To win, you need to be better than everyone else who is also playing to win. Generally, we marketers get this fact. We’re very prepared to play to win, but we’re not so prepared to be truly different. Why?
Let’s blame the system. Most of us grew up with similar names, dressed in similar clothes, went to similar schools. We ‘manage’ our differences lest our peers find us strange. We make fun of the odd ones. We fit in. This is why most of our highly differentiated brands were created by oddball entrepreneurs. They grew up different. They thought different. There were different. And therefore they created highly differentiated products and services.
But I digress.This is about advantage as much as it is about difference.
Difference + Advantage = Differentiated Advantage.
If you look at Batman, he’s different because he actually went out and built his own powers. He’s a self-made superhero. But does anyone care? Turns out that kids do, in fact, care. As a result, the Batman brand can position itself through differentiated advantage.
Apple is different because of its elegant design fusion of software and hardware. Bill Gates didn’t think people would care enough about this to overcome a superior business model. He saw it as a profound disadvantage, in fact, and he was almost completely correct- but Steve Jobs took that ‘almost’ and ran with it. More, recently, some have questioned whether, in a cloud-based content world, anyone would care about elegantly designed devices. But play with an iPad, then with a Kindle Fire- you’ll care. Apple is different. Apple is better. Apple has differentiated advantage.
It’s great that Dyson carpet cleaners (and now heaters) are different, but they are designed in a way that is both different and better. It’s nice that Virgin Airlines wanted to create a unique flying experience, but it succeeded because that experience was markedly better than that offered by traditional airlines. Hybrids were clearly a different kind of car, but until Prius designed a better kind of car, that difference was without meaning.
In the eyes of your customers, better but not different can still win the race, but it’ll be hard-fought every inch of the way. Different in a way that your customers don’t perceive as better won’t take you very far.
Difference + Advantage = Differentiated Advantage = Great Positioning
Austin McGhie is head of Sterling’s Strategy team and author of Brand is a Four Letter Word. Stay tuned over the coming weeks for more humble advice on the art of positioning.