When my kids were young, one of our favorite stories was “The Great Blueness and Other Predicaments” by Arnold Lobel. It told the story of a town that all one color and a wizard who created other colors to try and change the towns fortune. Only when he allowed things to be different colors did the town break out of its malaise. It is not easy to find the book (it is out of print), but I highly recommend it for kids.
Unfortunately, the technology industry is cursed with its own “Great Blueness.”
Gartner just completed a research study with a major component of it focusing on differentiation. The details of the study, as well as an action plan to improve differentiation are covered on my latest research note (subscription required) The Sad State of Technology Differentiation and What You Can Do About It, but I wanted to highlight a few of the findings in this post..
The overall theme was a clear belief that technology providers are failing in their efforts to communicate differentiation. only 24% of the respondents fell that most IT providers are effective in differentiating themselves from the competition, while 52% felt it was difficult to understand differentiation.
Just as importantly, the buyers who felt that providers were effective at differentiating cited the top three factors as service and support, product features and functionality, and price. While those are not that surprising, the problem is that these are factors that usually require in depth evaluation and engagement, occurring deep in the Technology Buying Cycle.
For those that felt providers were not differentiated, the number one reason was the “Messages sound the same.” I’ve written about Differentiation Diseases before, and this research validates that (hence the new note). The Great Blueness lives in technology messaging.
In the face of sameness, buyers often turn to brand familiarity and reputation, with 56% saying “Brand reputation is a key consideration for us for differentiating providers.”
This brand power is great for established brands, but is crippling for emerging providers that lack that awareness. I still remember the early days of the workflow industry when Microsoft was cited as the number one provider of workflow solutions, when they did not even have a product or specific capabilities in that area. Buyers simply assumed that they did (often citing IBM in the same survey).
If your brand is not known, differentiation is not an option. But it is not easy. You have to focus and you have to be willing to give up something.
Too often, differentiation is done broadly. Providers create a slide for their decks citing their “differentiation” and listing a bunch of things (usually 10 or more) that they feel set them apart. Most of the time, the exact opposite effect happens. The audience picks apart these claims by identifying specific alternatives that can “say the same thing.” Even if they choose 4 or 5 alternatives, in the eyes of the buyer there is no differentiation.
Instead, more focus is needed. Be very clear about the comparison you are making. What are you different than? And don’t say “everyone else.” Also, narrow your targets. What matters to one buyer may be irrelevant to another.
The new note covers 8 other ways (beyond clear comparisons and aggressive targeting) to find and communicate differentiation. Using these techniques, I’m confident that any provider can find legitimate differentiation, even if it is fleeting due to competitive reactions.
Without finding and communicating differentiation, the uphill battle that most providers face to gain market and mindshare can become insurmountable.
You started your business for a reason, usually because you did not like alternatives to solving the problem you address. That is the story you need to tell, separating yourself from others. If you chose not to do it or are unable to, you’ll likely perish into oblivion.
Many years ago, Jack Trout wrote a book called “Differentiate or Die.” Take it to heart. It is true. Move beyond The Great Blueness to create a happier, more diverse marketing world.