Distinguishing Your Company Whether The Economy Is Up, Down, Or Sideways

When you think about innovation, it’s not as much about the invention of something new as it is about the distinction of something. And distinction is found in what you do, how you do it, the product you offer, the service you provide, and the experiences you create. So how will you distinguish your company?


Woody Hayes spent 28 seasons as the head football coach at Ohio State University, and then he was fired after a now-infamous incident in the 1978 Gator Bowl.


With time running down in the fourth quarter and the Buckeyes already in position to attempt a game-winning field goal, Hayes called a pass play. A Clemson player intercepted the pass and was knocked out of bounds along the Ohio State sideline, securing the victory for the Tigers. Frustrated by the play and the opponent’s celebration, Hayes lost his temper and hit the Clemson player.

For most Ohio State fans, however, that’s not the legacy of Woody Hayes. Naturally, some see his legacy in his coaching record–238 wins, 72 losses, 10 ties, three national championships, and 13 Big Ten titles. That proved more than enough to land Hayes in college football’s Hall of Fame. And Ohio State’s Woody Hayes Athletic Center is named in his honor.

Others, however, see his legacy in a chair–the Wayne Woodrow Hayes Chair in National Security Studies. In keeping with his wishes, donations made in his honor following his death in 1987 were directed toward academics, which led to the creation of the chair. Hayes, who once grilled Richard Nixon about foreign policy, always took academics as seriously as he did football.

I remember Hayes for all those things, but most of all for something he said during a pep rally when I was a student on the Columbus, Ohio, campus: “Either you’re getting better or you’re getting worse,” he told the crowd. “Status quo is a myth.”

I used to think that was coach talk, but time and experience have taught me the truth of what he meant. In a competitive world, if you stay the same, you get passed by. Thus the importance of continuously innovating: you must keep getting better because your competition keeps getting better.


Regardless of whether your personal economy is up, down, or sideways, you can’t afford to stay the same. That’s because status quo is a myth.

Make Your Value Distinctive

If you think of value as an equation, it would look like this: V = E + E + SE, or Value equals Expectations plus Education plus Something Extra. The question facing most of us–and our organizations–is, “What’s our something extra? What’s our distinctive?”

Consider the following organizations that go beyond what’s expected:
The fried pickles at Freshcraft, a Denver restaurant that bills itself as “upscale comfort food in a casual atmosphere,” are dyed red just to make them different.

On Super Bowl Sunday one year, the pastor at the church I attend preached on why Christianity is like the Super Bowl. The ushers and staff wore football jerseys, and the congregation batted a beach ball around while singing praise songs.
At Fiesta Americana resorts in Mexico, the groundskeepers establish eye contact with the guests and greet them in Spanish. “When our guests come to Mexico,” the general manager told me, “they want an authentic experience. So we encourage our groundskeepers to say hello in Spanish and even teach the guests a few words in Spanish if time allows.”


magazine includes an audio CD in each issue. When I asked publisher Darren Hardy why he didn’t just use a link to an audio stream, he wisely pointed out that that’s what everybody else is doing. Even though the hard CD costs more to include, it is a distinctive value addition for subscribers. 

I have a file folder full of similar examples of products and services that qualify as innovative, and not just because of some technological breakthrough. In fact, when you really think about innovation, it’s not as much about the invention of something new as it is about the distinction of something–new or old. I’ll go so far as to say the purpose of innovation is distinction. And distinction is found in what you do, how you do it, the product you offer, the service you provide, and the experiences you create.

It’s not enough to be different. Being different without being valued is being weird. Distinction is being different and valued. So make your value distinctive.

The Piano Effect

Robert Bloom, the former CEO of Publicis Worldwide, clearly remembers why his father almost always stopped at Mobil stations for gas when the family was traveling around the country: clean restrooms.


That value created a “preference,” as Bloom calls it.

“You create preference by giving your customers small–or big–benefits,” Bloom said in a 2011 interview with SUCCESS. “You don’t have to give away the store. There are a lot of ways to create top-of-mind awareness and preference.”

I was in a mall in Oak Brook, Illinois, during the Christmas shopping season when something grabbed my attention and created a preference. In the center of Nordstrom, the high-end department store, a man sat on a bench and played holiday music on a baby grand piano. His tunes floated through the air, mixing among the racks of clothes and the displays of jewelry and providing warmth to the shopping atmosphere.

As I made my way through the rest of the mall, the other stores were decked out in reds and greens. I spent time in four other stores, all decorated pretty much the same and all with one other thing in common: no piano player. Nordstrom had successfully created what I now call the “Piano Effect”–that thing so different and valued about your work or business that when customers go elsewhere, they notice its absence and return to you.

As we innovate–personally and at an organizational level–we do well to ask ourselves this question: “What am I doing to create a ‘Piano Effect?'” At least six distinctives add value to anything and thereby create a Piano Effect: more, better, faster, different, less, or “funner.”
Your more might be more hours of operation, more of your product for the same price, more flavors of ice cream, more locations, more solutions, more legroom in the airplane, or more convenience.


Your better involves quality. The restrooms in your gas stations are cleaner. Stanley Marcus, the late president and chairman of the board of Neiman Marcus, liked to say, “Quality is remembered long after price is forgotten.” Your quality shines through in your product, your services, your commitment, your presentation, the appearance of your work area — everything you do, say, or sell.
Your faster demonstrates how you value the time of the people you are serving. Do you meet deadlines? Do you return phone calls and e-mail in a timely manner? Do you get the package there overnight, the oil changed in ten minutes or less, and the pizza there in less than thirty minutes? Do you add value by getting things done faster than your competition?

Your different takes you beyond the ordinary response to any situation to create something of value that gets noticed because it stands out from others. Do you dye your fried pickles red, risk being hokey with a Super Bowl-themed church service, or instruct your groundskeepers to interact with guests?

Or how about this: do you solve problems you didn’t create?

I keep a letter in my files from a traveler who had a problem with America West Airlines some years ago. He wrote to the president of that airline, but he also sent a copy to Herb Kelleher, who at that time was president of Southwest Airlines.

America West responded with a form letter that said something like, “Sorry you had a problem,” but they didn’t do anything about it. Kelleher’s response was along these lines: “We don’t say anything negative about our competition, but we’re sorry you had a problem. If you’d like to try Southwest in the future, here’s a voucher good for a flight anywhere we go in the country.” Herb solved a problem he didn’t create, and for thirty-nine dollars he bought a customer for life.


Your less isn’t necessarily the opposite of your more; it’s just different. Can you provide the same products for less money, as Wal-Mart promises? Can you save someone time and money, as Soundview Executive Book Summaries promises? Can you provide fewer hassles, less stress, or less of whatever it is the people you value don’t want in an experience or product? If you can, you create a distinctive that lasts.

Your “funner” is all about the experiences you create. I know, “funner” isn’t a word. But it should be, because it represents a really important ideal in creating value and it rolls off the lips with more, well, fun than “more fun.” Ever eat at restaurants where the waiter tosses you the rolls or where it’s okay to put peanut shells on the floor? That’s different, sure, but the difference is the element of fun. It’s like the flight attendant who adds some humor to the normally dull, same-old talk you get every time you fly.

A friend and his wife went to a Chick-fil-A expecting nothing more than the usual quick but good chicken sandwich. They didn’t realize it was Valentine’s Day weekend until they were greeted at the door in French and walked into a restaurant decorated to resemble Paris. A string quartet was playing music, and two employees were giving away free desserts. Everyone in the place, including the people wearing cow costumes, was having fun. What could have been a routine meal at a quick-serve restaurant became something much, much more. It was “funner.”

As Woody Hayes might tell them–and you–there is no status quo.

Taken from Chapter 8 of Up, Down, or Sideways by Mark Sanborn. Copyright (c) 2011 by Mark Sanborn. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. 


[Image: Flickr user Jagrap]