Differentiation is the result of efforts to make a product or brand stand out as a provider of unique value to customers in comparison with its competitors.
Remember it? Directed by Robert Redford, the movie was based on Steven Pressfield’s 1995 book with the same name. The actors include luminaries Jack Lemmon, Will Smith, Charlize Theron and Matt Damon. This was Lemmon’s final movie which makes it even more important to many people.
In 1931 (during the depths of the Great Depression), the City of Savannah, GA sponsors an exhibition golf tournament with great golfers Bobby Jones, Walter Hagan and the town’s golf prodigy and hero, Rannulph Junuh.
As he caddies, wise Bagger Vance (played by Will Smith) provides sage advice to help Junuh recapture his “authentic swing.” They talked very little about the fairway, sand traps or greens. They talked about post-traumatic stress, the meaning of life, guilt, regret, a broken heart, giving up, accepting responsibility and hiding. You know…light conversation (lol).
As many golfers of today can tell you, finding one’s authentic swing in golf is not just a matter of repetition. Golf is a mental game as much as it is a physical one. When a golfer’s muscles are tight from being angry at work, his/her slice or hook returns on the golf course. When a golfer’s optimism or confidence is compromised, the short game on the green becomes another nightmare. An executive’s capacity to make great strategic decisions is another version of one’s authentic swing.
Presidents of privately held mid-sized companies often don’t have time to play golf or have another similar outlet that offers feedback on whether the president is still centered. It is impossible to maintain your authentic swing when you aren’t centered. Often the all-important feedback comes in the form of poor business results. The president’s loss of his/her authentic swing is taken out on the business.
Sometimes executives just keep showing up when he/she knows he/she is “just not right with the world”. Continuing to show up is important, but just going through the motions can solidify bad decisions (a hook or a slice). Finding what keeps you centered is worth the effort. An executive coach could be your Bagger Vance.
We ALL share this challenge.
Whether your company’s product is an alcoholic beverage, an app for smart phones or an automobile, today’s potential buyers are more sophisticated and skeptical than ever. They know about the logic/psychology/manipulation behind advertising messages. Millennials,in particular KNOW they shouldn’t trust anyone…be it big business, big government or big media.
Recently, Havas Media published findings from their surveys about 700 brands that reached 134,000 consumers in 23 countries. In the majority of the countries, 73% of the respondents would not care if the major brands went away. In the USA and Europe, the detachment from brands was a huge 92%. Consumers in Asia and South America expressed a bit more brand attachment, but other research suggests that it is quickly diminishing on those continents as well.
In response to consumer cynicism, some companies have decided to convey leadership. Experts endorse their products. Research is cited to prove their claims. They choose authoritative titles that include words like FIRST, WORLDWIDE or PREMIERE. Maintaining industry leadership is expensive, and skepticism makes it even more difficult to achieve. The “who cares” factor impacts ROI.
Others have opted to become challengers. Their marketing emphasizes how specific features are superior to a competitor’s. This helps the companies be more nimble in their marketing and potentially seem more current, but the challenger position can dilute the message and can remind consumers of childhood “tattle tales” (snitches or bullies).
Niche positioning has become more popular during these cynical times because getting into the minds of a select group of potential buyers seems more possible than trying to appeal to everyone. Niche positioning often leads to multiple or micro brands, more complex organizations and increased expense.
Maybe the least expensive positioning during skeptical times is follower. After all, skeptical consumers can quickly compare features and prices online. Why not opt for lowest price? This positioning isn’t easy either because millennials are not just your/our potential customers; they are your/our employees. In general, millennials are not seeking careers in companies that don’t honor patents, cut corners, resist innovation and seem boring.
There are risks associated with each positioning. In my opinion, the least effective option is to jump around. Why should millennial employees and consumers trust a company that says it’s a leader one year, acts like a challenger the next and claims to be a focused specialist (niche) the next?
Recently, I was visiting with a family from Vietnam. They were convinced they knew what America is like because they had visited New York City. To me, that is like saying you have a sense of Mongolia because you once visited Beijing.
A few of our growth strategy and executive search clients have their eyes (and hearts?) set on expansion into Manhattan. One is headquartered in NE Pennsylvania. The other is in Princeton, New Jersey. They are both very very good at what they do. NYC is enticing. We “get it”, but when we started to run some cost projections that included multiple team members, office space and increased out of pocket allocations for dining & entertainment, ground transportation & parking and gifts & donations both clients seemed a bit taken aback. The truth is some cities like NYC, Tokyo, Singapore, Hong Kong, Rio de Janeiro, Monte Carlo and Dubai are more like separate countries than cities. Despite the value of new technology, you still just can’t phone (or Skype) it in.
Perhaps you have seen the tongue-in-cheek posters of “Manhattan’s View of the World” that include clear images of individual buildings in Manhattan, a blur of images for boroughs like Brooklyn & Queens, and just curved words for LONG ISLAND, NEW JERSEY & CONNECTICUT. The poster’s images jump fairly quickly to FLORIDA and CALIFORNIA. You would never know that the United States includes places like IOWA, ALABAMA or WYOMING.
Those posters are correct. How many people just say “I’m going into THE CITY” when referring to Manhattan? A LOT! Go ahead and try to ask a Manhattan-based person to come meet you for lunch in a great restaurant in Jersey City! Right!!!
Companies, like Welocalize, Inc., have become increasingly important as more businesses seek globalization. Expansion is not just about geographic distance. Many times, it is more about culture and a capacity to relate to the people involved. Welocalize provides valuable research about local cultures, customs, purchasing patterns, neighborhoods, community leaders, sensitivities, etc. We have concluded that just as much research and thought is needed to expand into NYC as when a firm expands from Princeton into Frankfurt, Sydney, or Shanghai.
There is so much emphasis these days on specialization, serving a niche, and improving what you do that some companies get in a horrible rut.
Imagine you ran a M&A (mergers and acquisitions) firm like Peter Colella does. He is the President of the Colmen Group. That’s complicated business, right? It’s a big dating game. They are always looking for buyers and sellers, evaluating compatibility, and facilitating deals. But one of the many reasons Colmen has been successful is that Colella continues to introduce new services to the mix in response to customer needs. They got into developing, staffing, financing, promoting, and integrating new offerings several years ago and more recently they added management advisory services as well.
“It may not sound sexy,” says Collela, “but our clients were really happy when they learned we could provide ‘spreadsheet jockeys’ for them while they were going through the various steps involved with deals.” (Click here to listen “When & How To Introduce New Services” with guest Peter Colella.)
Or imagine you are in the “personal image” business. Would you be one of the first firms to provide make overs? Did you pitch a television show to the cable networks? Would you have seen the cue to author a book? Would you use UTube and Facebook as ways to reach the public? Entrepreneurs like Mary Lou Andre and Karen Kauffman have found ways to update and expand their services in that highly competitive market. (Click here to listen to “DIFFERENTIATION” with guest Karen Kauffman.)
Or imagine that your company provides project management or marketing services? Those services can quickly become commodities, right? Greg LaLonde of TripleFin has stayed ahead of competitors in that space by focusing on the pharmaceutical and consumer products industries and investing in new services to become a one stop shop for their customers. (Click here to listen to “The Power of Committing to Vertical Integration…Especially during a Tight Economy” with guest Greg LaLonde.)
Thrity-eight years ago I did not know that my businesses would provide a range of services to help midsized companies keep growing. Expanding from strategic planning into services like growth financing and executive search has certainly helped my businesses achieve 93% repeat business and attract talented employees over the years.
When/if your business hits a plateau, consider the possibility that the plateau may not have been caused by the economy. Maybe your company’s product/service development process is FLAT!
Two very clear traits become apparent when you interview Presidents of truly differentiated companies. They really do know how to listen to their customers and they focus much more on the business than themselves as individuals. That may sound obvious and familiar because most of us have heard it before. But most of us don’t pay attention, look at our own behavior, or make changes based on it.
Smith Yewell is the President of Welocalize, Inc. Yewell’s company didn’t remain a home based consulting firm and subscription on line import/export business. He listened to what communications companies were saying and got into the language translation business in a big way. Welocalize, Inc. invested in multiple locations for visibility on a global basis. They have consistently upgraded their technology. One of their 10 acquisitions was a software company that could pick up the speed of their on demand translation work. Today, they are a $60 Mil/year industry leader with Google, CISCO, and Computer Associates (CA) as clients. Many of their top clients have been with Welocalize since Smith Yewell started the business in 1997.
Welocalize, Inc. reflects a few of the tests to evaluate if your business is truly differentiated:
Does your business address a problem, a pain, a meaningful gap in what competitors are doing? Just doing what others already do–just a little bit better–can be tiring and expensive. Computer Associates, Google, and CISCO needed translation done well and much faster than they were able to get find elsewhere.
Is your product/service conveyed in a memorable way? Smith Yewell changed the name of the business to Welocalize, Inc. to convey the benefit (the results) of fast excellent translation services. That is more powerful than something like “TranslationsRUs,” don’t you think? 1 800 Got Junk is a more powerful differentiated name than “Jim’s Hawling Services.”
Does you business feel like a magnet pulling prospective customers, vendors, talented employees, and investors toward you? Why wouldn’t you receive several resumes each week from people who want to work for/with you when the unemployment levels are as high as they are these days?
Is everyone in your business invested in learning and continuous improvement? What is your reaction when you hear customers complaining? Do you become defensive and shift your focus to more compliant customers? Or are you like Welocalize, Inc. and pick up your speed, invest in technology, go global, and seek the most demanding customers to sustain your position as an industry leader?
Click herewww.TheGrowthStrategist.com to listen to Aldonna’s interview with Smith Yewell – one in her series of shows on DIFFERENTIATION .