“Different is better than better.” This maxim, courtesy of best-selling author and Hall of Fame speaker Sally Hogshead, is more true now than ever before. Today’s level of competition in the business world means that simply being better than others does not create a sustainable advantage. Moreover, trying to one-up your competitors usually leads to commoditization. When competition is high, strengths matter less and differences matter more. Differences catch attention; differences elicit a response; differences generate buzz.
So if you want to build a great brand, you would do well to focus on being different. But—and here’s the important point—your difference must make a difference. You can’t be different just for the sake of being different. Differences that are intended only to capture attention or provoke a response, such as GoDaddy using a sexualized Danica Patrick in its ads or Presidential candidates using stunts and shocking statements, are no more valuable than gratuitous sex scenes in a movie—the benefits are fleeting and unfulfilling.
Great brands are built on meaningful differentiation. To be meaningful, your differentiation needs to be the following:
Polarizing. The goal of being different isn’t to please everyone; it’s to engage a few people really well. If your “difference” appeals to everyone, then it’s probably not all that different. When you’re truly different, some people will hate you but others will love you. And those who love your brand will buy it more often, pay more for it, and extol its virtues to others. Your difference should inspire an intense, deep bond with your brand—and you can’t do that by promoting a difference with mainstream appeal.
Transcendent. Meaningful differentiation is rarely achieved with a feature, technology, or even a product itself. Anything that is easily copied isn’t really that different in the long run. It might seem different at first, but it quickly becomes just the latest iteration in a constant stream of innovations from you and your competitors. You’re better off differentiating with your purpose, values, or personality. These kinds of differences create an emotional connection with, and convey deep empathy to, the people you’re trying to attract. And they’re much more difficult to imitate. Importantly, though, an intangible difference must still be an obvious one—a nuanced or subtle difference is unlikely to be noticed.
Substantive. The average American attention span is now only eight seconds. This means people might respond to your efforts to stand out, but their attention will quickly be diverted by something else. Plus, being different is about more than simply getting noticed. Your distinctiveness must be substantive and valuable. Attention is earned by being truly different, not vice versa. Moreover, today’s savvy customers can see through most marketing ploys. Your differentiation can’t be only what you say, it must be what you do and what you are. In fact, “different” belongs on the same list of brand attributes as “cool” and “authentic”—if you have to tell people you’re different, you’re probably not.
Being different is, well, different than making a difference. The former is relatively easy; the latter is infinitely valuable.