Give me differentiation or give me death

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January 12th, 2010

One afternoon not long ago I took a moment to sit down and read the morning newspaper.  I’ve always been an afternoon newspaper guy. (Deseret News, can you hear me?)  Immediately, frustration set in — not with prognostications about the recession, but with the advertising content.

I noticed a local grocery store insert – jammed full of prices and items, but nothing else.   Then I happened upon a second insert — different grocery store, likewise packed with products and prices.  “Fresh, crisp broccoli, 69 cents a pound,” the first screamed at me. Not to be outdone, the second insert’s main headline also touted “Broccoli, 69 cents a pound.” “Citrus sale” both also loudly announced. Other prices and featured items in the two competing inserts were similar, as well.

A few minutes later, my frustration level rose. This time two competing sporting goods stores were announcing similar “40% Off” sales on almost identical “active apparel.” Again, sale items galore. Then, finally, a logo, address and the dreaded, microscopic disclaimers.

I wanted to bellow, “Give me a reason to choose one of you!”  “Any good reason besides price!”  “Please, tell me why I should select your store over theirs!” “Offer me a worthwhile point of differentiation!”

Is it a disease transmitted by local, retail advertisers only?  Sadly, no.  A day later I sat down with a recent issue of Fast Company Magazine.  Hot car ad #1 looked like hot car ad #2 which looked like hot car ad #3.  In each instance, I beheld a page-dominant photo of a glistening machine in full zoom mode, accompanied by a small, pithy headline about escaping life.  My wife and I were actually in the market for a car at the time.  None of the ads, at the cost of about $60,000 per page, left me with a clear understanding of their respective vehicular differences.

The same could be said of that issue’s multiple laptop computer ads. Shame on them.

Come on now, how long has the philosophy of “positioning” been around?  Yet so many companies (and, apparently, ad agencies) still ignore it.  Failure is fully deserved when the principle of positioning goes unobserved.

Jack Trout and Al Reis introduced it in their classic business book, “Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind.” The year was 1972. They spoke convincingly of creating and owning a unique position in the prospect’s mind and heart. A pretty photo with a word-play headline just doesn’t do the job.

No client will succeed long-term with a grocery store mentality. Someone else will always announce a can of beans at a lower price. Price is not a powerful, long-term marketing position, in my opinion. Target has created an “upscale sale” niche that has nearly destroyed K-mart – by focusing on something more than mere coupons.  They’ve created an edgy feeling and attitude about their value-oriented brand.  They’ve carved out a position that differentiates their stores from competing retailers.  Target is a hip place to save money.

Apple has done the same thing.  No matter the product, their approach is “think different.” It’s a brand that stands for innovation, design, and revolution.  Bottom line, it stands for something meaningful.

If only those grocery store ads had given me a reason to smile, to think, to feel, to like them for more than just the price of broccoli. Wild Oats does that in spades.  They’re willing to take some of that supposedly precious price-and-item ad space to build a meaningful, lovable personality that creates long-term loyalty.

The principle is the same regardless of the venue in which you practice capitalism. The goal is to avoid that grocery store syndrome at all costs. Give consumers a reason to buy, to be loyal, to love your product or service. Build a unique brand, not merely a me-too ad. It’s called meaningful differentiation, and it makes a difference at the cash register.

Image courtesy of jbcurio on Flickr.
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