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Finding that Elusive Point of Differentiation: Part 2

I have been discussing the importance of differentiating your business (and brand) in a crowded marketplace, sharing suggestions for analyzing your customers and competitors and offering a few ideas for creating a distinct identity.

In this post I’ll propose a few more options for your consideration. This list is in no way comprehensive, but should stimulate further creative thinking on your part.

Culture and Values. For many consumers, merely offering high quality products or attentive customer service is not enough: they also want to do business with companies that share their values and social priorities. For example, a recent Nielsen study found that 66 percent of consumers are actually willing to spend more on a product if it comes from a brand that’s committed to sustainability.

Many consumers, especially Millennials, expect the brands they patronize to demonstrate good corporate citizenship. While “good corporate citizen” can mean different things to different people, it generally refers to how a business affects the communities in which it operates — beyond providing jobs or delivering financial value to shareholders. Corporate citizenship, which is closely related to the concept of corporate social responsibility, can refer to everything from supporting philanthropies to demonstrating responsible business practices such as environmental sustainability.

One company that has built its brand on values and a noteworthy commitment to corporate citizenship is Patagonia, a manufacturer of outdoor clothing. Founded by famed rock climber Yvon Chouinard, the Patagonia brand has long been associated with environmental concerns, which aligns it closely with the interests of its customers. For example, the company donates 1 percent of sales or 10 percent of profits (whichever is larger) to environmental groups.

Patagonia’s commitment to environmentalism and sustainability is undeniably genuine and not a short-term strategy devised by an advertising agency or PR firm on the basis on market research findings. The company’s ongoing policies — and often startling advertising campaigns — represent the core values of its owner, its employees, and many if not most of its customers. This authenticity is crucial; you can’t really fake your core values, at least not for long. And no one likes phony.

Does your business operate under a clear set of values? Do those values align with those of the people you do business with — or would like to do business with? What are some of the concrete steps you take (or can take) to demonstrate those values? And how might you ensure your prospects and customers are aware of those values?

Specialization. Having an in-depth focus on a particular segment of the market, and developing specialized expertise in that segment, is another way for companies to distinguish themselves from competitors. Consider Fragomen Worldwide, a global law firm that concentrates on a single practice area: immigration.

The firm, which has operations around the world, doesn’t offer a wide range of legal services (and actually doesn’t even practice law in nations where immigration services are handled by consultants, rather than attorneys). Instead, the firm has achieved enormous success by focusing single-mindedly on helping clients navigate the varied and complex laws regulating immigration around the world. Today Fragomen is widely recognized as the world’s premier expert on global immigration.

The sheer complexity of many fields makes specialization an imperative for numerous businesses, including many professional service firms. But businesses in a variety of industries have distinguished themselves by narrowing their focus instead of trying to be all things to all people. One example is In-N-Out, a popular hamburger chain based in southern California. In contrast to competing chains that continually add new sandwiches, salads, side orders and desserts, In-N-Out maintains a tightly focused menu comprising hamburgers, cheeseburgers, French fries, soft drinks and milk shakes. That’s it. It’s a strategy that has made it one of the most successful restaurants in an extraordinarily competitive market.

Personality. Does your company have a distinct and appealing personality? Do you have a corporate culture that makes people enjoy working for you…or doing business with you? If so, you might consider making that personality a central part of your business identity or brand.

It’s worked for some companies. A notable example is Southwest Airlines, which is not only one of the most successful airlines, but also one of the most admired.

Southwest helped pioneer the low-cost carrier segment with its single class of non-assigned seating, minimal frills and avoidance of the hub-and-spoke system common to other U.S. airlines. But I’m convinced that a key factor in Southwest Airline’s success is its corporate culture, which emphasizes informality and fun.

Not only is the company’s advertising humorous, but its employees evince a sense of fun in their interactions with customers. For example, its flight attendants are known to sing or rap pre-flight instructions. Employees are given considerable freedom to act, and are encouraged to delight customers with surprises.

This culture is no accident, but results from carefully recruiting its employees and then investing heavily in their training. The company’s founder, Herb Kelleher, argued that “you hire for attitude, train for skill.” So the company goes to great lengths to find and hire people who exemplify its culture of fun.

The result: Southwest employees have fun on the job…and not surprisingly, so do their customers.


The ideas presented here and in previous posts are just a few suggestions for you to consider when trying to decide how to differentiate your company. You need to think carefully about what distinguishes you, and then work tirelessly to demonstrate those characteristics, encourage them in your people, and then promote them to your current and prospective customers. Determining what makes you different and special can be a challenging endeavor. It can also be an extraordinarily rewarding one.

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