Blog post

Differentiation Games

By Hank Barnes | May 25, 2021 | 1 Comment


Differentiation is a funny thing.   Everyone talks about it, but not many are great at it, particularly in the ‘macro’ sense—when looking from a far.   In many cases, it is hard to appreciate and buy into differentiation until you have experienced the solution.

That being said, there are some differentiation ‘games’ that occur over and over again.

The most prominent is the game I like to call ‘Spot the Difference.”   I talk about this a lot in differentiation clinics I conduct.

By Source, Fair use,

In 2010, the great 80’s band Squeeze released an new album.  It was essentially many of their classics, but each had some form of twist.  The listener’s job–find it.   Now, the real reason they did the album was to gain control of the rights to some of their own music.  But the differences–nearly impossible to detect.

And that is what I experience with many many vendors.  they share materials with us for feedback and evaluation and I feel like I am playing ‘Spot the Difference’ over and over again.  The differentiating idea is nearly impossible to discover.   The biggest problem is that no real comparisons are made.  Without stating the alternative, then differentiation is a guessing game–one that no one ever really wins.

A similar game is the Differentiation Attack.  In this game, vendor’s do identify an alternative, but they describe it in a way that makes it sound awful.  This basically is telling customers and prospects, “You’ve got to be really, really stupid to use that stuff.”  Two issues with this.  First, you really don’t want to tell your customers they are stupid.  Second, if the alternative really is that bad, then it is not really an alternative–so why bother differentiating from it.

The final game, for today, is the Differentiation Menu game.   In this game, vendors just list a whole bunch of stuff (“Our people”, “Our culture”, “We care about our customers”, etc.) and expect the customer to (a) figure out what matters to them, (b) care about something on the list, and (c) hopefully not identify others that do individual items on the list–basically destroying the claims one item at a time.   This may lead the customer to take their order elsewhere.

Differentiation is really important and really hard.   Particularly for new vendors and new products.  Established vendors can get away with no differentiation (and may play a game we’ll save for another day, the “We do that too” game) without severe consequences.  But that won’t work for everyone

Stop playing these games.   Be clear about the market context you are playing in–your ideal customer, where you focus, the alternatives that can address the problem.  And then, be clear about what you do differently.   Just doing this will help you get noticed.   Lead to what makes you special by leading with the context of your customer.

And go listen to some old Squeeze songs.  You’ll be tempted to listen more and your friends will think you are cool for cats.

Leave a Comment

1 Comment

  • Guy Banham says:

    Great article Hank, and great double-Squeeze reference in the very last line 🙂