There’s a lot that goes into creating a successful brand: product, design, community, story.
But, unless you can offer something that no one else can, the whole strategy falls apart.
An evolving differentiation strategy is crucial in an ever-changing and competitive marketing world.
What You’ll Learn:
- What differentiation marketing is
- How to get started
- Why you should consider your customer experience
- Using your value proposition to determine differentiators
- Examples of differentiation in marketing
What is Differentiation in Marketing?
Differentiation, in marketing, means creating specialized products, services, or experiences that position your brand at a competitive advantage within a specific market segment or segments.
Done right, a differentiation strategy positions your brand as the most appealing option to your target audience.
Brands can differentiate based on just about anything, including:
- Brand image
- Product offerings
- Business model
- Niche targeting
Keep in mind, differentiation is more than the uniqueness of your products or services. It’s the uniqueness that your customers perceive.
More and more, we’re seeing that a “one-size-fits-all” approach to marketing isn’t very effective–consumers have more choices than ever and want something that speaks directly to their needs.
Your goal is to show your audience that there’s no direct substitute for your products/services. That way, you’ll have a market advantage without competing on price.
Plus, when customers can’t get “X” or “Y” from anywhere else, they’ll likely hang around for a while.
Before you can create a differentiation strategy, you’ll need to actually define your brand’s true differentiators so that you can play them up in your marketing strategy.
How Do You Differentiate in Marketing?
As mentioned, differentiation is about creating something that can’t be replicated by some other competitor—meaning, low prices and decent service don’t make a brand.
What’s more, your differentiators must meet the following criteria:
- Is it relevant?
- Is it true?
- Can you prove it?
While these elements are just a start, brand trust should remain at the center of every differentiator in your strategy.
In these next few sections, I’m going to walk you through some steps you can take to differentiate your brand and stand out amongst the crowd.
What is Your Brand’s Story?
You’ll also want to look at your brand’s story. What made you (or your founder) start this company in the first place? Do you have a unique history? Did the company grow out of some sort of gap in the market?
What Are Your Values?
Beyond your story, you’ll also want to consider your company’s values. Values can be philanthropic, ethical, or more about quality, but they should make sense in the context of your product/service offerings.
At Ignite, our values are represented by the “Three Rs,” relationships, responsiveness, and results. So for us, that means we provide our clients with ROI-driven services and an open communication style that involves frequent calls, transparent reporting, and short-term contracts.
If you’re an apparel company your values might be more about sustainability or workers’ rights–as those issues are likely more important to consumers than say, communication and reporting which are essential if you’re running a marketing agency.
Alternatively, if you’re in the B2B SaaS business, your values might center around being the most knowledgeable company when it comes to online accounting or AI-driven chatbots.
Do Your Research
As with every strategy from influencer marketing to content marketing and Facebook ads, research is a big deal.
Your differentiation strategy is no different.
Make sure you learn everything you can about the pains, preferences, and desires of your potential customers.
Ultimately, the goal is to align your offerings and your brand’s message with what your customers actually want.
Additionally, research will also help you identify issues that you need to address to make your company more appealing to your target customer.
Map Differentiators to Your Audience
You’ve identified what makes your brand unique–from your backstory to your values and product offerings.
You’ve dug into your buyer personas and done some market research.
Consider Your Customer Experience
You’ve probably heard something along the lines of “today, brands compete on experience” an awful lot in the past five-ish years.
In part, this idea grew out of brands like Amazon, Uber, and Airbnb that made “customer obsession” the norm.
Beyond thinking about solving your audience’s problems and creating messaging that makes sense for this group, consider what you want customers to walk away with.
Think about what’s unique about the experience customers have while doing business with you.
Use Your Value Proposition to Highlight What Makes You Unique
Finally, after you’ve done your research, defined your audience, and how your brand speaks to this group in a unique way, you’ll want to then write out your unique value proposition (USP).
This statement will serve as the foundation for your entire messaging strategy, so you’ll want to take some time here.
Essentially, you’ll want your USP to include the following information:
- The core benefits your product/service delivers
- How you solve your customers’ problems
- Why customers should choose you over a competitive solution
Whatever your differentiators are, the main thing here is to make sure that they cannot be copied.
Again, if you’re trying to differentiate based on price, your competitors can easily update their pricing to undercut your market share.
And, when it’s easy for competitors to mimic your strategy, your product becomes a commodity. It’s also worth pointing out that technology won’t give you much of an edge, either.
See, again, your competitors can leverage the same software and equipment–or something even more sophisticated and duplicate your strategy.
Bottom line–differentiation lies in the intangible–your brand’s story, your values, your unique understanding of the audience, or something else that can’t be copied through mimicry alone.
Not sure where to start? Here’s a round-up of brands with great USPs you can use as inspiration.
What are Examples of Differentiation in Marketing?
As mentioned, differentiation doesn’t boil down to just one thing.
You can differentiate products, content, values, and experience. In fact, most brands differentiate themselves in several different ways.
However, no matter which areas you focus on, they must come together in a way that makes it clear exactly what’s unique about your brand.
Lush Cosmetics stands out against competitors like Sephora due to its niche specificity.
The brand offers really unique products with a DIY vibe—setting them apart from every other brand in the category.
Instead of the polished lipstick counter, you’ll find at a department store or a Sephora, Lush offers hand-made, eco-friendly makeup and skincare and is best known for their colorful bath bombs and soaps.
They’re also known for their values, which shine through in everything they do. All products are vegetarian and handmade and often seem more like foods than cosmetics.
Here, I’ve included a shot of Lush’s values page.
The brand does a nice job relating big-picture causes like fighting animal testing and committing to ethical buying practices to their products and processes.
For a look at how those values translate off the page, Lush’s YouTube channel provides a nice blend of helpful content and a peek behind the curtain.
The standout here is the brand’s hypnotic, behind-the-scenes footage of products being made, as well as the meditation videos that aim to enhance the experience of using the bath bombs.
What I like about this approach is it shows transparency (proving products really are handmade) while also providing viewers with this really compelling visual experience.
Airbnb’s customer experience is much different than what you’d get at a traditional hotel or motel. You’re staying in real peoples’ homes, which gives travelers the ability to “live like a local.”
Their goal is to make their community of users feel like they belong anywhere, which is reflected on their social media channels, website, and external channels.
Airbnb Magazine (an actual publication that costs $18/six issues) is one way the travel brand differentiates in their marketing strategy.
Rather than focus on content that aims to get people to book a stay or an experience, the magazine is about building a global community.
Here’s a look at some of the articles they feature posted to their Medium account for a better idea of what that means.
This screenshot includes content from their “Makers Issue.”
What I like about this example is, while the content follows a loose theme, the brand lets its writers call the shots — allowing for a diverse, global voice that somehow manages to stay on-brand.
Additionally, the travel brand has adapted to the COVID-19 crisis by highlighting online experiences and private homes that offer a “better” social distancing experience.
Red Bull differentiates based on persona. In this case, the energy drink brand positions itself around a target audience that’s active, successful, and thrill-seeking.
You’ve probably seen the cars dressed as Red Bull cans or attended an event sponsored by the brand–be it a sporting event, festival, or concert.
Where other energy drinks might target gamers or worn-out office workers, Red Bull’s marketing strategy takes the energy drink out in the world — both literally and on their digital channels.
Here’s an example of the brand’s IGTV content. This post features a half-hour interview with pro surfer, Carissa Moore, while others feature athletes in action.
Red Bull’s “Tagged” content aligns with the more “polished” IGTV stuff.
Here, users from all over the world post share pics of the slim cans in various outdoor settings and participate in hashtag contests like this one below:
Where a brand like Lush might differentiate based on product offerings and its commitment to sustainability, Dove leans hard into another purpose.
The personal care brand was one of the first to celebrate diverse body types by featuring real women instead of models in their ads.
The brand has consistently communicated these values for several years–remaining true to their mission to endorse realistic beauty standards.
Here’s an example of how they’ve taken those values and turned them into a broader effort to dismantle existing beauty stereotypes.
While Dove’s Instagram feed has a slightly different aesthetic, its messaging remains consistent across the board.
Content spans several different campaigns and has an eclectic vibe, but it works, given Dove’s mission to promote inclusivity.
Trader Joe’s is a great example of how you can differentiate in a space that can easily lend itself to commodification.
The grocery brand is known for its Hawaiian shirts, unique products, and quirky personality—it shines through in the brand’s top-notch copywriting.
While they might not always have everything you’d find in a traditional supermarket, customers love TJ’s for the emotional journey, as well as the great prices.
Shopping isn’t about coupons and loyalty points. Instead, there’s an element of discovery. Customers inevitably leave with a new favorite snack or a decent bottle of wine for under $10.
There’s also a scarcity element that keeps consumers hooked — beloved items tend to leave unexpectedly, while hot items (remember “Cookie Butter” get picked up fast).
Trader Joe’s also experiments with limited release items that you can’t find anywhere else, a quality that makes it acceptable for the brand to almost exclusively promote products on their socials.
Here’s a look at their Instagram grid.
The product-focus works because, well, people like to eat. TJ’s posts tend to promote new products, highlight meal ideas, and share simple recipes.
Here’s an example of an easy meal idea.
I like the simple graphic, combined with the copy that matches what’s on their website, and monthly newsletter, as it demonstrates tight cross-channel consistency.
On the website, TJ’s also shares their story in a unique way, creating a timeline that dates back to the 1960s. They even explain the origin of the brand’s signature Hawaiian shirts.
Altogether, the grocery chain has created the perfect recipe for brand evangelism — with most of its appeal coming from how it’s different from, say, Kroger or Walmart.
Another example comes at us from the conversational marketing platform, Drift.
Back in 2016, the company broke up with lead gen forms and replaced them with chatbots.
While lead gen forms can be a great tool, Drift has more or less made it their “thing” not to use them.
Thereby proving that directing incoming leads to chatbots allows them to connect those leads with real people and have real conversations much faster than if they were to go through a traditional nurturing funnel.
Additionally, this conversational style is one way for brands to differentiate on experience.
See, Drift makes their story/branding about connecting through conversation–an offering a unique, empathetic marketing experience that goes beyond offering “great service.”
As far as content goes, the website offers really detailed guides about using chatbots, how demand generation is supposed to work, and of course, the “how,” “what,” and “why” of conversational marketing.
Here’s their Chatbot Learning Center, a great example of how Drift uses expertise as a differentiator:
While there are plenty of chatbots on the market, Drift focuses on a specific niche — companies with long, high-stakes sales cycles.
As such, the website, the product, and the overall experience provides relevant, useful information without a bunch of fluff their core audience doesn’t care about.
On Twitter, the SaaS brand primarily promotes content that showcases their expertise — consistent with their on-site content strategy.
On YouTube, you’ll find a few different categories including product how-tos, marketing and sales tips, as well as several videos that offer a look inside the brand’s culture.
While culture videos aren’t necessarily mandatory, Drift’s do a nice job highlighting experts and providing some perspective on how things work internally.
Differentiation in marketing is hugely important when it comes to securing lasting success.
You can have the best products in the world and really impeccable service, yet if you fail to differentiate, you’ll have a hard time moving beyond commodity status.
Ultimately, your differentiation strategy is all about defining what your brand is all about—from mission and values to your unique backstory—and how that aligns with your customers and their problems, desires, preferences, and interests.
How can you help people? What do you do that no one else does? If you’re not sure— invest the time it takes to really nail this stuff down. After all, it’s the USP that makes the brand.