What a Difference a Difference Makes

My daughter Emily made the news the other day.

You probably missed it unless, like me and my fellow Hopkinton, Massachusetts residents, you frequent our town’s news blog – a photo-rich, constantly updated goulash of local events, home sales, police activity, wildlife sightings and other assorted oddities.

In Emily’s case, she was photographed on the town common, stretching out before a cross country team practice.

I have to say that I was surprised by the number of people who, over the next several days, mentioned having seen Emily’s picture.

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But even more surprising was this: How many of them also pointed out how much Emily looks like her older brother, Evan.

Personally, I don’t really see the similarities. Sure, they share some very general characteristics – two arms, two legs, same hair color, an oddly charming father, etc. But when I look at them, together or individually, I never see one inside the other.

Apparently, this phenomenon is not that unusual. Here’s how author and Harvard Business School professor, Youngme Moon, explains it in her (terrific) book, Different: Escaping the Competitive Herd:

“[W]here a connoisseur sees the differences, a novice sees the similarities.”

When it comes to my children, I’m a connoisseur, an expert – I see the differences. When it comes to your children, on the other hand … well, they all kind of look the same.

Professor Moon, of course, wasn’t talking about kids, she was talking about companies and the products and services they sell. But it’s the same idea.

It’s also the reason why, I believe, so many professional service companies are both baffled and frustrated by the ineffectiveness of their own marketing.

Here’s what I mean…

You and your industry peers are connoisseurs of the work you do; you understand and appreciate the intricacies and subtle differences in positioning, experience, capability, orientation and more, between you and your competition.

Your prospective clients, however, are novices. All they see when they look at your category is “lawyers” or “life coaches” or “financial planners.”

“But wait,” you’ve probably bellyached to your long suffering spouse. “That can’t be right. We’re smarter! … We’ve got more years of experience!! … We’ve got more certified blah blahs than anyone else in town!!! Why can’t prospects see that we’re better?!”

Simple. It’s because they’re novices – everyone else’s kids look alike.

So what’s the answer?

Let’s start with what the answer isn’t: Being and looking and doing the same as everyone else:

Tweeting the same links as everyone else with the standard, unremarkable observations; covering the same topics as everyone else in a bland and lifeless newsletter; using the same stock photography as everyone else on a boring web site; sharing the same point of view; giving the same talks; wearing the same clothes; driving the same car; hiring the same people … AHHHHHHHHH!! KILL ME NOW.

My apologies for that outburst.

But I think you get the point. Valid or not, you can’t separate yourself from the crowd with incremental distinctions that only another insider can appreciate. Instead, and to use a technical marketing term, you need “big chunks” – things that even the casual, uninitiated, inattentive NOVICES can see.

Some examples:

• Narrow your focus.
I can’t tell if you’re a better marketing consultant than the other guy. But if you sharpen your focus to one thing and call yourself The Tagline Guru, the novice assumes you’re the expert.

• Flout convention. Promoting and fine-tuning the same approach to exercise as that of your fellow fitness gurus will keep you invisible. Telling them they’re all crazy will make you famous.

• Leverage your relationships
. You may not think of relationship building as a differentiation strategy, but as far as I’m concerned, it’s the most powerful tool you’ve got.

Think about it. If your sister were a travel agent, or an orthopedic surgeon, or an auto mechanic, and you needed help in one of those areas, wouldn’t you go straight to her? You bet you would.

Not only that, there would be no discussion about credentials, competition or even price.

Relationship trumps everything – the more people know and trust you, the less need they feel to shop around, negotiate or mull things over.

Here’s the bottom line. I know you’re good at what you do and I believe you when you tell me that in certain situations, you’re better than the competition. The only problem is, your competition tells me the same thing.

When it comes to the services you provide, I’m a novice – and I always will be; I can’t discern slight differences in capability or experience. If you want me to notice you, you need to find ways to leave the herd entirely.

(If you liked this post, let me e-mail you when I’ve written others. Subscribe here.)

Tired of blending in? Maybe it’s time you became a leading expert. Enroll here, now.

26 thoughts on “What a Difference a Difference Makes

  1. Jane Sherwin

    Michael this is a nice one, thanks. Speaking of standing out, I’m sometimes tempted, beyond resistance, to Tweet a link to some gorgeous, lively piece of music (YouTube clip** from Swing Girls, for example). I don’t sing for my clients, I just write, but perhaps this tells them something about me that will attract them–sense of humor, my tastes in music. (Unless they just end up thinking I’m a little nuts.)



    1. Michael Katz Post author

      Hi Jane! I think some will think you’re nuts. But if they hired you, they’d know for sure and not be good clients. For me, the reason for sharing all the personal stories and interests is so the people who connect with you (on whatever level) can find you and those who are not a good match can go elsewhere. I don’t think you can overshare on the personal side.

  2. Bonnie

    I am writing to “testify” that your blog/newsletter is the only one of a handful that I read. Yours I actually look forward to. Now when I see “Blue penguin” in my inbox I automatically smile. Then I read to learn and laugh.

    The connection you made between your kids, the idea of “connoisseurs seeing the differences, and novices seeing the similarities” and the leap to our clients being “novices” is a brilliant distinction….and memorable. You demonstrate everything you talk about….and it works. I’m a fan who is now planning my escape from the herd.

  3. Ira Bryck

    How I differentiate myself: I help families in business with the particular sorts of pressures and dilemmas that don’t come up for families not in business, or businesses not run by families. But even to further distinguish myself, I have no specific best practices that I recommend for all. Every consultation is custom, after hearing the unique flavors of their situation. It deals with what the business needs, along with how that’s complicated by their family culture, history, hopes and fears; and adds in specific and measurable ways that they can take the right incremental steps. More at umassfbc.com or irabryck.com

    1. Michael Katz Post author

      Hi Ira! I’ve always thought your family+business focus was a nice one. Easy to understand and remember, and it’s easy to see that the issues you’re expert in are different.

  4. Julie Gardner

    Dear Michael,

    After having somehow and unwittingly “bounced” out of your weekly newsletters, I’m happily home again. Thanks for reconnecting and making my day. You have a fantastic way of connecting the dots – and it’s always worth a good chcukle!

    BTW- I’ve had several people tell me the same thing has happened to them with respect to my newsletter; The Piedmont Perspective. What’s the trick to making sure our readers don’t accidentally “bounce?”

    1. Michael Katz Post author

      Julie! Great to have you back. The bouncing dilemma is not so easily solved and a bigger topic than we can cover here.

      It’s a moving target (your emails to individuals may work, not work and work again, even though you’ve changed nothing) and it’s as much art as science in even figuring out who appeared to bounce but actually didn’t and vice versa.

      One easy recommendation: Make sure you’re using a well known, respected email vendor. Half the problem (at least) relates to where the email originates from. You want a vendor that takes this seriously and has good contacts with the ISPs. I’m very happy with Constant contact.

      Welcome back,

  5. Heather Clement

    GREAT thoughts. It’s why we, as a company, like to point out that we specialize in construction insurance. Do we write other lines of business? Yes… but we’re EXPERTS when it comes to construction insurance – we’re members (and board members) of multiple trade associations, and publish a newsletter specifically for contractors with information THEY can use. Susan Friedman said it best (next to you, of course!) that “No matter what or whom we’re talking about, from movies to chiropractors to books to financial planners, the consumer hankers after specialization.” (Riches in Niches).

    You’ve definitely given me some things to think about though… not sure how we can flout convention without making enemies, but I’m brainstorming. We recently did a facebook charity contest (Gave $2 for each new “like” to a local non-profit). A couple of weeks in, we noticed other companies doing that as well, but not locally, and even still… we were in front of the curve. Is that the kind of thing you’re talking about? Just doing things differently?

    Interesting that you mention relationships in this newsletter. We have a radio spot ready to go that is all about how we value relationships.

    Glad to know we’re doing some things right and looking forward to improve in the ones where we’re still weak.

    LOVE your newsletters. Thank you!

    1. Michael Katz Post author

      Sounds like you’ve found ways to stand out, Heather. Thanks for sharing them with the rest of us; good stuff to think about!

  6. Rodney Stagg

    Hi Michael,

    Our point of difference or what we use to stand out in our line of work is “We deliver on time every time or you don’t pay cent! In our business delivery of product is very important to the client along with the service we give our clients, but delivery when its ordered on time is what we strive to achieve with all our clients and we have become known for our product delivery on time every time or you don’t pay a cent!


    1. Michael Katz Post author

      Interesting Rodney. Do clients refer to you as the “ontime guys,” or similar? In other words, do people know you by that distinction?

      1. Rodney Stagg

        Hi Michael, Yes the more we push the “Deliver on time everytime or you don’t pay a cent” is our point of difference. No one else states this, we deliver to our customers on time. It not really a problem we just allow time for hiccups in courier delivery etc and we “Deliver On Time”



  7. Ros

    Hi Michael,

    Thanks so much for your sage advice. For an ‘oddly charming’ guy you pack quite a punch and I would NEVER consider you part of the herd. How do I separate myself from the rest of the bovines? In the overcrowded online pet accessories business I’m working on developing my own ‘voice’ (another topic I’m sure you have touched on) for product descriptions rather than trotting out the generic info. everyone uses. Seems Google likes that too!

    Cheers, Ros
    PS: Your newsletter is always waiting for me in my inbox on a Saturday morning – for me to enjoy in a relaxed way with a good cup of coffee – maybe that’s why I enjoy it so much.

    1. Michael Katz Post author

      That sounds great, Ros. Don’t forget to include photos and tell stories about your own pets too!
      See you next Saturday,

  8. Scott

    Michael, I am a new reader to your newsletter. But you are walking the talk. You are delivering powerful information in a fun, decidingly different, unique way of story-telling.

    Great post and good lesson for all.

  9. Bill Alpert

    True, everything looks alike to a reader who really doesn’t care about the subtle shadings between us. And in fact, that’s why so much marketing is ineffective, or just plain boring. Who cares about my USP, specialty or mission statement? Really.

    And who can blame the customer? The world is full of me-too financial consultants, salespeople and professionals who basically do the same thing. Marketing is their veneer, their facade. Their way of not looking like a commodity. Nobody is fooled, really.
    Me! Me! Me! It’s all about me! So many get stuck on that point. When it’s really “customer! customer! customer!” that should be ringing through our skulls before we put pen to paper.

    If your marketing is about capturing the imagination of your customers, then it begins to register. If it’s about the problems they face every day and the aspirations that run deep, then you’ll get noticed.

    And if you’re truly brilliant at what you do, to the point of making it your art, then let that shine in a way that captures your customer’s eye. Do good work, and make a difference. Let others spread the word.

    That’s standing out.

  10. Katherine Andes

    Michael, That was a really good tip. It helped me to understand better just WHY it’s so hard for folks to tell one SEO copywriter from another (my profession). I find relationship building to be my bread and butter, so you were right about that as well. Recently, I redeveloped my website. It doesn’t look like most copywriters’ websites. Boy, a few people raked me over the coals. Oh, well. I love it myself. Kind of has a nature theme going, like yours … with bees. But one “friend” said my beekeeper looked like a terrorist! Loved the tagline guru. Sorry for rambling, it’s late!

    1. Michael Katz Post author

      Thanks for sharing that Katherine. I actually don’t find friends/colleagues/relatives that helpful in this regard. They have a natural tendency to push us back towards the safe middle of the road, out of concern for us looking stupid or failing (or both). The thing is, you have to be willing to risk both in order to have an impact. (I think your beekeeper looks fine too!).

      1. Katherine Andes

        Yes, you’re right. Relatives and friends do push us toward mediocre … I hadn’t thought that it might be a “fear” thing. Boy, you’re really on a roll with the insights, Michael!

  11. Carole Brecht

    Excellent issue Michael. Very powerful message in this. Being a standout in business in a tough economy, let alone in general, is challenging. I found building relationships and being genuine a great way to build my business. The humor you continue to use to convey your messages is an add-on delight. Thank you for being consistent and sharing all your important and expert ideas on how to grow a business. You are the only enewsletter I read anymore since I no longer own my retail shop. Mostly, these days, I am caretaking my mom and my professional life came to a screeching hault. But I still read your messages because often times I find I can apply them on some level to everyday life. 🙂 !


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