How we Choose and Differentiate Based on Seeing What isn’t There

  Hear and see what isn't there


Greater choice paralyzes us and makes us poor strategists. This is something we all struggle with in our work and personal lives. There are way too many options to choose from with too little time in a day. When we're done picking a technology marketing stack, multitasking, and ducking in and our of meetings, there's no energy left to pick a toothpaste.

    Do we really need hundreds of products with very little differences? Is it useful personally to become an expert in wine, cereal, and boxed pizza? When we're faced with a wall of choices, how do we pick? Is it worth to have a strategy?

    Users and buyers do have strategies, even when they're not aware of them. Organizations and brand strategies should go beyond the obvious — competing on the shelf and in the market — and get to the heart of what matters to customers by seeing what isn't there.

How we choose

    Offers and price breaks typically work to sway us on commodity products. In other cases, we tend to trust a store brand — for example Trader Joe's label and Whole Foods 365 both have organic product families. Fewer options make them easier to select. Let them filter the choices.

    Most of us have but a few minutes to get what we need at the store at the margin of our days. Which means a few seconds per product. Maybe we look at expiration dates, maybe we scan the list of ingredients, but few wade into comparison territory. If we're researching and/or buying online product reviews do have an impact.

    Yet brands are obsessed with comparison — sometimes using the competitive set to get to a place of parity with others, rather than differentiation. Yet when we let brands filter for us, we do it on the basis of a very specific story they tell us, and we tell ourselves.

    Youngme Moon says most brands that focus too much on market segmentation and product augmentation, while attempting to create differentiation, have actually led to meaning less distinctions. Competitive analysis and comparative metrics have created conformity, resulting in competitive herding, with all competitors blurring together in the mind of the customer.

    Moon offers some high level ideas on creating effective differentiation. For example, subtract features from the offering, creating difference by stripping away the superfluous. Or polarizing, so that some people hate the offering while others love it. Clever marketers have also transformed an offering into a different category in the perception of customers.

How we differentiate

    It's true that a clearer value proposition, a choice by the brand manager, is compelling. True differentiation, however, starts with a clear understanding of the market gap the product supports and the business model that supports the product.

    For the market gap we want to become very good at hearing what is not being said. Observing how people buy, learning what they talk about, and especially when they talk about our product with others — and we're not even in the room. Hence the importance of customer reviews for product/business intelligence.

    This works for service as well, by the way, where it's a combination of things that make it us, us and not another [insert your professional title.] This past week I was talking with a hiring manager who told me basically what I'm looking for is a unicorn.

    But could not say which 3 of the two dozen things on her list matters the most. Yet, it's those 3 that matter the most to the success of that unicorn in getting work done best. The multiple talents and plays at once unicorn is just that, a rare (and expensive) thing. Betting on a horse who can win a certain kind of race creates more advantage.

    Because that's how we buy products, too. In the end we pick the one that meets our top 2-3 requirements to get the job done and call it a good day. Google differentiates on the basis of a product and business model. Find what you need as quickly as possible. IKEA makes design affordable, you put in the labor… or pay a little more to have it assembled.

How we tell our story

    Once we we learn to see what isn't there, and create a product or service that adds value, we want to find the best way to communicate that value. This means figuring out the specific language we use to talk about how we help. Something like:

[Organization/Product/Service] is a [adjective]+[short description (should include a term that describes the most important thing)] built for [who we serve].

    Maybe our value is for experts, maybe it's to support everyday choices. How we do what we do can be different. For example, we ship a kit to your house every month#. Maybe we buy at a store that sells everyday items online unbranded#.

With [Organization/Product/Service], [who we serve] can [job it does] + [core differentiator]. 

    Or maybe we link the jobs to be done to customer segments. This works for businesses that sell to other businesses (B2B). Increasingly, users (the ultimate customers) drive the purchasing decisions of intermediaries as well.

    For example, installers care about ease of use of features and how they fit existing or complementary systems. Contractors may have favorites. Ultimate users, the customers who get an addition may care about price and availability, maybe deterioration rate. People with building product experience may know to look for innovation in air flow as well.

    Before we can sell a feature, we need to connect the user with the benefit at a deeper level. It starts by seeing what isn't there. People don't necessarily know or care to learn more… unless we lift the veil of ignorance of why it matters to them specifically.

    Culture is a also a factor. The people on the inside of an organization — product or marketing manager, engineering, etc. — may care about certain things. The people outside it — users, customers, social group, etc. — may care more about others. We must know the difference and plan accordingly.



Different, Youngme Moon

The Paradox of (too much) Choice (Italian), Gianluca Diegoli for the question on utilitarian vs. expert

The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less, Barry Schwartz