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Don’t Empower Your Competitors By Differentiating at the Wrong Level

by Hank Barnes  |  April 29, 2014  |  Submit a Comment

I regularly blog about, and help clients with, differentiation.   In fact, I will be speaking about differentiation at the upcoming Gartner Customer 360 conference in Orlando.  The conference runs from May 19 through 21st at the Gaylord Conference Center.  My talk on differentiation will be on Monday, the 19th at 11 am.  I hope to see you there.


One of the differentiation mistakes that I see if clients associating their differentiation with an emerging industry standard or a new category they are trying to create.  At first blush, this seems like a good strategy–you are building the case for the standard or category by talking about what makes it better than the old way of doing things.

Unfortunately, this also empowers you competitors.   Standards are only valuable if they are broadly adopted.  If you associate differentiation with the standard, then any other company that supports that standard inherits those differentiators—and they are no longer differentiators, they are just points of value.   Usually, when I explore this area with a client, it turns out that the unique value often comes not just from the support of the standard, but the particular way the company has implemented it or extended it with added value.

That is a good thing—but associate that value with your product–not the standard.   Effectively you have shifted the differentiation to something you can maintain as unique for a longer period of time.  That does not mean ignore the value of the standard—it’s just not the source of sustainable differentiation.

The same holds true for new categories.  Many years ago, I made this mistake in the early days of Web content management.  At that time, WCM systems were largely designed to support professional publishing operations.  The market was beginning to shift its focus to companies that needed to be able to manage their Web sites more easily.    I was running marketing for one of the early players in that market, Eprise.  We were competing with companies like Vignette and Interwoven.   One of our strengths was ease of use and true empowerment of business users.

But we made a mistake, and I blame myself for it.  We told everyone that Web Content Management had to be easy.  It had to be oriented toward business people who “owned” the content.  At the time, our competitors required much more effort from IT to setup and run their systems.  But us associating WCM with “easy” became an inherited trait.  People started assuming that WCM meant “easy.”  Our differentiation was reduced because it was associated with the category.  (Now I won’t claim that we were the only company focused on this approach–others were as well, but if we had simply defined WCM as managing content for the Web, without applying additional descriptors, and linked the idea of easy to our product, our differentiation would have been sustained at least a little longer.)

Don’t make the same mistake I did.  Be thoughtful about where you build and associate differentiation.  Don’t link true differentiators to standards or categories that competitors can inherit.  Link it to your products.  That does not mean standards and categories are not important–they are just areas that help frame and reinforce your differentiation.

Register for the Gartner Customer 360 Conference and attend my session to explore more issues and opportunities around differentiation. And follow the #GartnerCRM hashtag for more discussions on this and related issues

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Category: go-to-market  

Tags: category  competitor  customer-360  differentiation  gartnercrm  standards  

Hank Barnes
VP Distinguished Analyst
6+ years at Gartner
30+ years IT Industry

Hank Barnes explores the dynamics, challenges, and frustrations enterprises face when buying technology products and services. Using that customer-centric lens, he advises those responsible for marketing technology products and services, general managers responsible for product portfolios, and startup CEOs on next practices to drive success for their customers and their business. Read Full Bio

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