Go to any business school today and the professors will beat the concept of differentiation and competitive advantage into students’ heads. Businesses become intensely focused on augmenting products and services to ensure they are perceived as different. Products and services are tweaked and manipulated to make sure they’re different. Consequently, we have observed an explosion of brands and products — yet, how different are they really? The competitive treadmill has companies stuck in a rut looking over their shoulder responding to each competitive move. The minute that the competition creates something remotely viable or attractive in the marketplace, the industry responds with imitations and “me too” goods. The constant competitive responses slowly kill original creative thinking. The incessant focus to be different while responding to competitive maneuvering only makes businesses more similar.

Ultimately, competitive advantage is lost when a business becomes distracted by “me too” responses. Saying no, when the marketplace is saying yes, is different and difficult to do. Tackling a challenge others think is not possible is different.

*Youngme Moon of Harvard refers to these companies as “reverse brands.” They take away something consumers expect, but in return gives them something more. If you have not read her book, Different, it is a must read. The following companies have recognized and embraced their authenticity, which truly differentiates them from their peers:

  • JetBlue: Though they stripped away free meal service, round trip discounts, and first class seating, they also provided plush leather seats, personal entertainment units on each seat back, and a promise to never bump a passenger.
  • Google: In the midst of cluttered landing pages that were bigger, busier, & better… Google stunned people with what it didn’t do.  Google’s home page was stripped down & naked relative to the leader Yahoo with cutting edge search analytics technology.
  • IKEA: When IKEA launched in the USA it had minimal variety of styles, virtually no shopping assistance, no shipping, & no delivery.  While giving us less, IKEA also gives its customer something more: design, style, and value.
  • In-N-Out Burger: 6 items on the menu, no children’s menu, no salads, no desserts… HOWEVER, every item is made from scratch with fresh ingredients.

It takes courage to stray from the herd. It takes risk to break away from the pack. Only when a business is courageous enough to shrug market norms and truly be different can true competitive advantage be earned.

*Moon, Y. (2010). Different. New York, NW: Crown Publishing group.

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