The Art of Differentiation

On a recent visit to the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) in Boston, I found myself in the same gallery as a tour guide. She looked at the two art installations in the room and said something that, as a brand strategist, I won’t soon forget.

Gesturing to the art on the left, she said, “The artist wanted to show an endless loop of objects that keep repeating.” Then, gesturing to her right, she said, “And this is a collection of handmade porcelain. No two objects are alike.”

There, in one gallery, the MFA curators were making an important point about society: In a sea of sameness, we always appreciate the things (and people) of quality who stand out.

When a differentiator really isn’t

What does this mean for your business? The point is clear: If you want to get attention (that ever-precious commodity), you need to be different. And not what you think is different, but really different.

Also, you need to be authentic, which means no phoney baloney sales and marketing jargon that customers see right through. You need to deliver the honest truth, expressed with empathy and communicated in plain language, no more and no less.

How do you know the difference between a real differentiator and an imagined one?

Do this exercise: Collect your recent ads. Then look at your competitors’ ads. What are they claiming in their ads? In many cases, it’s probably the same thing you are.

At this point you have two choices:

  1. You can redouble your efforts to find something within the way you currently do business that makes you truly stand out.
  2. You can try another approach.

I’d like to tell you a quick story about one business that’s at this same crossroads.

A banker comes clean

I recently met with a senior banking executive who was looking to better differentiate his bank from all the others in his market.

What was interesting was that the bank had already engaged a consultant to go through an exercise to arrive at a differentiator. Instead, the bank ended up with a laundry list of potential “differentiators” that this executive freely admitted could be said of virtually any community bank. Clearly they hadn’t found it yet.

What were they — and the consultant — missing?

I mentioned to the executive that one’s differentiators don’t necessarily have to be something you do right now, especially if you’re in a commoditized industry. They can be aspirational — or put another way, they can be what you want your business to be like in a few years. Your job in that case is to ensure that they speak to a real customer need and are believable.

Creative invention in branding

This discussion brings to mind a definition of painting I once read: “Painting is an art of creative invention.”

Creative invention. While your business might be in a dogfight with competitors now, it doesn’t have to be that way forever. You can create and invent your way out of the problem. Instead of reaching into the past, you can start building your future with a sense of excited anticipation.

How? By starting with this important thought exercise and question:

It’s five years from now. Our company is now #1 in our industry. What are we doing?

Then work backwards from there. You have your marching orders.

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