Ask Dan: Think Different

twinsDear Dan,

I'm frustrated. My firm just paid for a market-research study and one of the findings was that the customers in our market can barely tell my firm apart from any of our rivals. It's humbling because we've always prided ourselves on our design strength, but that doesn't seem to be getting through. If you can't get your customers to recognize it, what good is it? Any tips for "making it stick"?

- Mallflower

Dear Mallflower, here are 3 possible explanations for the situation you're in:

1. The Dry Cleaners explanation: Or, standing out is impossible. You're in a very competitive market where everyone offers essentially the same products/services at comparable prices. So you can offer new features (Home delivery! Eco-friendly cleaning!) to set yourself apart, but chances are, your competitors could match you quickly. (Or, worse, customers don't care enough to notice. For instance, sometimes I struggle to remember the name of the shop that has changed the oil in my car for the last 4 years.) If this sounds like the right explanation, read Blue Ocean Strategy in hopes of finding a new market where you could differentiate yourself more easily (and, as a corollary, make more profit).

2. The Tivo explanation: Or, the customer understands what makes you different, but it's not something they care much about. Years ago, when Tivo first launched, they ran some commercials that highlighted the ability to "pause live TV." For the first time, we were no longer slaves to our TVs—we could get a sandwich or take a phone call whenever we wanted. The TV would wait on us. The notion of "pausing live TV" was a radically unexpected idea—perfect for getting attention. But it wasn't clear that this "nice surprise" was worth paying a bunch of money for. So Tivo, which had been billed as an earthshaking innovation, had a surprisingly slow adoption rate after its launch. (Later, they started to emphasize other features, such as the Season Pass.) Back to your situation: Are you sure that customers care about "good design" in your market? (Could you spend some (more) money on research to find out the answer for sure?)

3. The Al Gore explanation: Or, your company really is different in a way that matters, but you haven't been able to communicate it effectively. In the 2000 election, you'll recall, it was often said that Al Gore & George W. Bush were interchangeable candidates. This turned out to be wrong in relatively spectacular ways that need not be recounted here. With the benefit of hindsight, it's clear that Gore's advisors needed to do a much better job surfacing what was different about their candidate.

The same is true in the business world. For customers to have a preference, they must first see a difference. Think of those Mac Book Air commercials—with the laptop sliding into the envelope—that made it so easy to see what was different:

This laptop was super-thin and light. That commercial made it possible for someone to prefer the Air. (It would have been just as easy to obscure that advantage, perhaps with a spot highlighting the screen size or the software. That would have created the Al Gore problem, burying the laptop's key advantage.) So can you do the same? Can you make your design advantage absolutely transparent to the customer? Think in terms of what you can show.

I don't know if any of this helps, but maybe it will help you escape the most common interpretation of the results you got: Our customers are frikkin idiots! (Not to say they aren't idiots, mind you, only that it doesn't follow from the results.) Good luck.

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