It’s no secret that the ability to differentiate a product or service is almost always important.
I say almost always, because there are cases where demonstrating you are similar to others may be enough. This is mostly the case for well known companies, where their differentiation can largely be the perception of being a “safe choice” or “less vendors to manage.” For them, being similar may be more important than being different (although some will see that the differentiation strategy is about perception of low risk).
But for everyone else, differentiation is critical. We spend a lot of time with clients trying to help them identify and communicate their differentiation. Going back through my posts, you’ll see some of the fundamental ideas for this: establishing the market context; being clear on the comparison; looking beyond the product; etc.
But there is one element of differentiation that we have not talked about much and that is timing. Timing is critical to differentiation, just like timing is critical for many photographs.
Here is what I mean.
Consider a company that has decided to explore products in one particular category (rightly or wrongly—yes, focusing on a category vs. looking for a variety of ways to address a need may not be the best path). They want to find products to consider. If this is the type of market you play in, too much differentiation too early could cause you to not even be considered. You need to illustrate enough “sameness” to “get to the table.” Once there, you can differentiate.
Let’s take another market. One that is very established and in which most new purchases are a form of replacement. The customer has experience with the category. In this case, differentiation needs to come early and be about how you are different than what they have already experienced.
For a third example, let’s consider a brand new, breakthrough idea that offers a way of addressing needs that is different than anything that exists today. For that, you have to hit differentiation hard early, with strong and clear comparisons to the “old way” vs. the “new way.” Without differentiating, you won’t even get considered.
And finally, let’s look at one other scenario. In this case, let’s say you are approaching what some feel is the new frontier of differentiation, customer experience. Touting your CX early could backfire. First, in B2B, CX is not the driver for a purchase decision—that should start with making sure that the customer need(s) is addressed. Once that is established, CX can be important. But if you play up CX too early, the customer also doesn’t have a context to compare. Your CX claims may be met with attitudes like “wouldn’t other vendors care about the experience?”
Timing is everything in differentiation. You need to think about what circumstances and information need to be present in order for your customers to be “ready” to understand and believe your differentiation claims.
You can help this along. The way you communicate, ideally using stories that are customer focused and describe the situation they are facing, can lay the groundwork for differentiation. Then you build to a crescendo as the customer learns more and is in a position to embrace your differences.
Let’s look at an example, with tow different contexts. Let’s say you have a pricing model that you can prove is more economical and transparent for customers. If you are in a market, where there is known frustration with pricing, you can tell the story of your pricing with a lot of detail early–as long as you have first established that your product is also “as good” as others.
But if the issues of pricing are not well understood, leading with pricing too early could confuse. Instead, build a story that talks about the situations in which it would be used and the ability to drive more and more use as customers are successful. Emphasizing the likelihood of expanded use starts to lay the groundwork for your pricing story. Once customers believe in the expanded use, you can reveal your pricing approach as a way to combat escalating fees due to success.
Differentiation is never a one shot deal. If your differentiation truly matters, you should find a way to work it into everything you do. Every piece of content. Every event. Every offer. Every interaction. Sometimes this will be a light touch; other times it will be the entire focus. Think about the timing and the readiness of your customer.
Right now, take a hard look at what make’s you special. And think about both the market context and the customer readiness to accept your claims. Use that information to fine tune your differentiation approach.