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.

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.

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