Differentiation – Real Advantage or a Lie?

Agencies tell themselves they stand out from the competition, but when you try a little test the differentiation disappears very quickly.

In 1965, as college freshmen in the Deep South, we were oblivious to the cultural revolution that was starting to sweep campuses around the country. We were tradition-bound and institutionally managed by a dress code. Our hair could not touch our shirt collars (shirts with collars were mandatory) or cover our ears. Our shirts had to be tucked in, and a belt was required, as were socks. We were free to dress anyway we wanted within those restrictions, and we did. Most chose blue shirts with blue socks or yellow shirts with yellow socks, and, for the bold members of our class, there were pink shirts with pink socks. We wore the same uniforms; only the colors differed. Obviously, these clothes were so “1964 and high school.” So as we grew into sophisticated freshmen with a larger world view we advanced our wardrobe to include Madras (bleeding Madras) in shirts, shorts and some slacks. At last we were different – we were all different – just in the same way. In less than another 18 months, the craziness that was the West Coast – the hippie movement – arrived on campus. Our dress code was gone as fast as our belts and socks. Our bleeding Madras was replaced by cut-offs and tie-dyed T-shirts. At last, we were free to be individuals – to do our own thing – and we did. All of us did our own thing – just the same thing. Fast forward 40 years, and I’m in an agency board room listening to an agency’s management team discussing plans for a new website and a new proposal format to showcase the agency's uniqueness – how it differs from competitors. My question was simple: What makes you different? Give me five or six real, definable and measurable examples of offerings that you bring to the market that your competitors don’t or can’t. The discussions were bold (like college freshmen) and the ideas as diverse as our then-new wardrobes, but to me the sameness was obvious. As they bragged – I gagged. What they saw as “bleeding” Madras, a revolutionary new look, I saw as yellow socks and yellow shirts – and I knew that the competitors were wearing the same wardrobe, because I had been in their closets, too. After several hours and more “styling,” the team agreed on what made them different. I listened politely, then restated their list to be sure that what I heard was what they said. All agreed. Now the challenge was to bring this list to life in a website and presentation. I could live their delusion no longer. I stated, “I know most of your competitors, and they make these same claims and provide the same offerings. In fact, some of them use the same resources to deliver these same offerings. Where’s the difference?” I hit a nerve. One of the producers said, with significant frustration, “Yeah, but we really do it.” With equal frustration, I stated confidently, “I can call each of the principals of all of your competitors and ask them if they really do these things, and I promise you they will each say, Yes.” To prove the point, I created a spreadsheet with the nine major competitors of their agency listed. I then studied the website of each and captured two or three of the most significant “brag points.” Finally, I hid the names and brought the spreadsheet with me to the next meeting. I said, “Tell me which is your agency - it should be easy because you are unique.” After many attempts, they acknowledged that they couldn’t because they weren’t. Before you discount this article and this challenge as not applying to your shop, I have one suggestion. Try it. Can you find your uniqueness? Would your clients find it? Would they believe it? How long have you had that nice Madras shirt? See also: Dare to Be Different: It's the Only Approach That Works

Mike Manes

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Mike Manes

Mike Manes was branded by Jack Burke as a “Cajun Philosopher.” He self-defines as a storyteller – “a guy with some brain tissue and much more scar tissue.” His organizational and life mantra is Carpe Mañana.


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