You can hardly sleep through a marketing lecture without hearing the word “differentiation” so many times that it begins to seep into your daydreams.
The language of differentiation — giving your product a point of difference that customers will value — has become so pervasive that it is taken as a categorical imperative…With all due apologies to Immanuel Kant.
In theory, differentiation is a lovely idea. But in reality is highly ephemeral. From the stand-point of a physical product anything can be copied — quickly and cheaply (particularly if you don’t have to invest in coming up with the idea in the first place). Well, not everything. For instance, a patented formulation stands a good chance of holding off the hordes of imitators for a good while — at least in North America and Europe. But that aside, just about any product point of differentiation you can imagine can be quickly copied.
What happens next is the true danger of differentiation. I call it the Self-Referential Hermetic School of Tautological Reflexology. In other words, spending more time looking at what your competitor is doing in response to what you are doing and what you will do in response to that.
Example: About 5 years ago I was meeting with the marketing executives of Movilnet, a wireless phone company in Venezuela. They were positively gleeful as they showed me a new commercial. The commercial was making fun of their competitor, Telecel. Why all of the joy and glee in the room? Because they knew the ad would be taken as an insult by the head of marketing at Telcel. Millions of dollars in media spending to insult the competitor — without a thought to attracting customers.
I wish that anecdote was a one time case but I have seen it repeatedly around the world. Looking at the other guy instead of focusing on being yourself and your connection to the consumer. Well, it’s rather like the old Mad Magazine feature, Spy Vs. Spy. It bears little connection to the world of consumers.
Focus on what you have most control over. And that is the resources and direction of your company. Real differentiation comes from self-awareness and creating your own path to the future.