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It isn’t a natural human instinct to want to be different. We normally crave acceptance, want to be part of a peer group and to achieve this we follow the latest fashions and develop the herd instinct that suppresses our individualism and our distinctive identity.

Business is different – firms seek differentiation but differentiation is only worthwhile and valuable if it has a purpose. After all, a firm can differentiate itself by being significantly inferior to its competitors but this sort of differentiation is hardly likely to yield commercial benefits!

Differentiation in a business context doesn’t just mean different – it also means better and the differentiation must be worth something. It must be capable of quantification so that management of companies who strive to be different can be reassured that there is a discernible value in the identity they seek.

As far as I am aware, no-one has yet studied why competitive strategy should be so at odds with our natural human instincts. Maybe the answer lies in this basic paradox in human behaviour:- While we try to conform we admire those who don’t; those who strive for distinctiveness and the expression of their uniqueness and individuality.

Firms can behave like humans too. While they may secretly admire those with identifiable brands and clear differentiation, so many adopt me-too strategies, trying to sell me-too products to markets that they assume are identical to those of their competitors. Often the reason for this is that while their management are quite capable of developing a strategy which differentiates them, they lack the certainty that it will really pay dividends.

Others pay lip-service to the idea of differentiation but lack the courage to do something about it or start from the wrong premise. The real key to differentiation is not to find a unique selling point and build an identity around that. It is to construct an internal culture that automatically permeates the external behaviour of the company and gives it a brand with real distinctiveness.

It seems to me that one of the fundamental prerequisites of trying to build a competitive strategy that differentiates a company is that the company understands at the outset how it is perceived relative to its competitors - it needs to have a clear awareness of its current identity. Yet so many companies rely on their own instincts or flawed, very subjective research to inform them, or worse, don’t bother at all to attempt to find out where they are positioned. If they don’t know how far they have to travel, how will they know when they have arrived?

Le Beau Visage and Sharp Consulting have developed a concept called ‘Profile-Mapping’ which it has marketed with Winchester White. Profile Mapping aims to determine the gap between where a company stands in its marketplace and where it believes itself to be and we believe it is the starting-point for any analysis of differentiation or the potential to differentiate.

It may be a difficult and long journey before a company arrives at a position where it is perceived as different in a positive way from its competitors but, I believe this journey is among the most valuable it can take.

Le Beau Visage can help you with the process of differentiation. It is a very specific process for each company but some very clear rules apply in all cases.

  • Different companies will be interested in what their clients want and expect. Their difference will be created from a set of client needs.
  • They will try to own space in a hot area in their market. They will always be looking and researching current ideas and testing new thinking – and they will turn this into modern, practical ideas. This implies that they will have a continuously clear perception of the market in which they operate.
  • Often this difference may be particularly expressed in an idea or event which enables them to influence thinking about their market and gives them a strong thought-leadership position in that market.
  • Their difference will be based around special insight, distinctiveness and a focus on quality either in service or process terms (or both).
  • Different companies will not seek superfluous difference or superficial separation.
  • Different companies will be passionate about their brand and their reasons for doing things the way they do them.
  • Different companies exhibit ‘signature-behaviour’. This extract from a CCHM article defines signature-behaviour.

"Signature behaviour is an attitude that permeates a company from the very top to the bottom. It is memorable, deliverable, consistent, distinctive and evidence of a company’s personality. It’s not what you do (law, accountancy, insurance, etc) but how you do it. The brand and the business are not just connected but indistinguishable from one another. First Direct for example is a powerful brand that is synonymous with twenty-four hour banking – if you want to move money from your account at 3 a.m. on Christmas day, you can, and John Lewis is Never Knowingly Undersold.

Signature behaviour is a cross between convictions and culture, a combination of style and substance that permeates a company from top to bottom. In its purest form, signature behaviour is an attitude. It requires a more lateral approach to brand development than is usually the case. It requires vision, boldness and willingness to address and change issues that are not easily transformed.”

  • A company which is strongly differentiated won’t have to point this fact out. It will be obvious in every contact and every communication that they have with their customers and potential customers.
  • Differentiation won’t always mean being first to move in a market. First mover ‘advantage’ can often be illusory; advantage borne out of differentiation never is.
  • Companies that are successful at differentiation will often employ non-conventional thinkers and encourage them to indulge this habit. They will develop unorthodox ideas and approaches to solving problems.
  • This unorthodox approach will not be for affectation but to enable them to look at their business through a different lens. They are restless in their search for new insights.

In a world where so much is uniform, the real reason for being different is to try to do things better and to do better things. It will mean breaking new ground and undoubtedly it will mean occasionally making mistakes but if this is the price of making your company a different one I would contend it is one well worth paying.

If you want to talk to Le Beau Visage about differentiation or profile-mapping please e.mail Peter@LeBeauVisage.co.uk

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