While this quote has been credited to everyone from Francis Phillip Wernig, under the pseudonym Alan Ashley-Pitt, to Einstein himself, the powerful message does not lose its substance no matter whom you choose to credit. There is a very important yet often overlooked effect of not heeding this warning. One which can be applied to all aspects of life. From love and happiness, to business and marketing, copying what your competitors are doing and failing to forge your own path can be a detrimental mistake.
While as marketers we are all acutely aware of the importance of differentiation, we’ve been trained for the majority of our lives to seek out the norm.
We spend the majority of our adolescent lives trying desperately not to be different. No one has ever been picked on for being too normal or not being different enough. We would beg our parents to buy us the same clothes little Jimmy or little Jamie wore. We’d want the same backpack and the same bike everyone else had. With the rise of the cell phone and later the smartphone, on hands and knees, we begged and pleaded for our parents to buy us the Razr, the StarTAC (bonus points if you didn’t have to Google that one), and later the iPhone. Did we truly want these things? Yes, but not just because they were cutting edge and nifty. We desired them because the people around us had them. We didn’t want to be the last to get these devices. We didn’t want to be different.
Thankfully, as we mature we begin to realize the fallacy that is trying to be normal. We start to become individuals and learn to appreciate that being different is often seen as beautiful. However, while we begin to celebrate being different on a personal level, it does not always translate into our business or professional lives.
We unconsciously and naturally seek out the normal, and if we want to be different—truly different in a way that creates an advantage—we have to work for it.
The truth of the matter is, anyone can be different. In fact, we all are very different. Even identical twins with the same DNA will often have starkly different personalities. As a business, the real challenge lies in being different in a way that is relevant, valuable to your audience, and creates an advantage.
“Strong products and services are highly differentiated from all other products and services. It’s that simple. It’s that difficult.” – Austin McGhie, Brand Is a Four Letter Word
Let’s explore the example of Revel Hotel & Casino. Revel is a 70-story luxury casino in Atlantic City that was built in 2012. There is simply not another casino of the same class in Atlantic City, but there might be a reason for this. Even if you’re not familiar with the city, a quick jump onto Atlantic City’s tourism website reveals that of the five hero banners that rotate, not one specifically mentions gambling, but three reference the boardwalk. This is further illustrated when exploring their internal linking structure. The beaches, boardwalk, and shopping all appear before a single mention of casinos. There simply isn’t as much of a market for high-end gamblers in the Atlantic City area; in the states Las Vegas serves that role. So while Revel has a unique advantage, their ability to attract customers to their resort has not resulted in profitable earnings reports. In Q2 2012, Revel had a gross operating loss of $35.177M, and in Q3 2012 that increased to $36.838M.
So you need to create a unique selling proposition (also known as unique selling point and commonly referred to as a USP), and your USP needs to be valuable to your audience and create a competitive advantage. Sounds easy enough, right? Now for the kicker. That advantage needs to be as sustainable as physically possible over the long term.
“How long will it take our competitors to duplicate our advantage?”
You really need to explore this question and the possible solutions your competitors could utilize to play catch-up or duplicate what you’ve done. Look no further than Google vs Bing to see this in action. No company out there is going to just give up because your USP is so much better; most will pivot or adapt in some way.
Let’s look at a Seattle-area coffee company of which you may or may not be familiar. Starbucks has tried quite a few times over the years to level-up their tea game with limited success, but the markets that Starbucks has really struggled to break into are the pastry, breads, dessert, and food markets.
Other stores had more success in these markets, and they thought that high-quality teas and bakery items were the USPs that differentiated them from the Big Bad Wolf that is Starbucks. And while they were right to think that their brick house would save them from the Big Bad Wolf for some time, this fable doesn’t end with the Big Bad Wolf in a boiling pot.
Never underestimate your competitor’s ability to be agile, specifically when overcoming a competitive disadvantage.
If your competitor can’t beat you by making a better product or service internally, they can always choose to buy someone who can.
After months of courting, on June 4th, 2012 Starbucks announced that they had come to an agreement to purchase La Boulange in order to “elevate core food offerings and build a premium, artisanal bakery brand.” If you’re a small-to-medium sized coffee shop and/or bakery that even indirectly competed with Starbucks, a new challenger approaches. And while those tea shops momentarily felt safe within the brick walls that guarded their USP, on the final day of that same year, the Big Bad Wolf huffed and puffed and blew a stack of cash all over Teavana. Making Teavana a wholly-owned subsidiary of Starbucks for the low, low price of $620M.
Sarcasm aside, this does a great job of illustrating the ability of companies—especially those with deep pockets—to be agile, and demonstrates that they often have an uncanny ability to overcome your company’s competitive advantage. In seven months, Starbucks went from a minor player in these markets to having all the tools they need to dominate tea and pastries. Have you tried their raspberry pound cake? It’s phenomenal.
Why does this matter to me?
Ok, we get it. We need to be different, and in a way that is relevant, valuable, defensible, and sustainable. But I’m not the CEO, or even the CMO. I cannot effect change on a company level; why does this matter to me?
I’m a firm believer that you effect change no matter what the name plate on your desk may say. Sure, you may not be able to call an all-staff meeting today and completely change the direction of your company tomorrow, but you can effect change on the parts of the business you do touch. No matter your title or area of responsibility, you need to know your company’s, client’s, or even a specific piece of content’s USP, and you need to ensure it is applied liberally to all areas of your work.
Look at this example SERP for “Mechanics”:
While yes, this search is very likely to be local-sensitive, that doesn’t mean you can’t stand out. Every single AdWords result, save one, has only the word “Mechanics” in the headline. (While the top of page ad is pulling description line 1 into the heading, the actual headline is still only “Mechanic.”) But even the one headline that is different doesn’t do a great job of illustrating the company’s USP. Mechanics at home? Whose home? Mine or theirs? I’m a huge fan of Steve Krug’s “Don’t Make Me Think,” and in this scenario there are too many questions I need answered before I’m willing to click through. “Mechanics; We Come To You” or even “Traveling Mechanics” illustrates this point much more clearly, and still fits within the 25-character limit for the headline.
If you’re an AdWords user, no matter how big or small your monthly spend may be, take a look at your top 10-15 keywords by volume and evaluate how well you’re differentiating yourself from the other brands in your industry. Test ad copy that draws attention to your USP and reap the rewards.
Now while this is simply an AdWords text ad example, the same concept can be applied universally across all of marketing.
Title tags & meta descriptions
As we alluded to above, not only do companies have USPs, but individual pieces of content can, and should, have their own USP. Use your title tag and meta description to illustrate what differentiates your piece of content from the competition and do so in a way that attracts the searcher’s click. Use your USP to your advantage. If you have already established a strong brand within a specific niche, great! Now use it to your advantage. Though it’s much more likely that you are competing against a strong brand, and in these scenarios ask yourself, “What makes our content different from theirs?” The answer you come up with is your content’s USP. Call attention to that in your title tag and meta description, and watch the CTR climb.
I encourage you to hop into your own site’s analytics and look at your top 10-15 organic landing pages and see how well you differentiate yourself. Even if you’re hesitant to negatively affect your inbound gold mines by changing the title tags, run a test and change up your meta description to draw attention to your USP. In an hour’s work, you just may make the change that pushes you a little further up those SERPs.
Let’s break outside the world of digital marketing and look at the world of branding. Tom’s Shoes competes against some heavy hitters in Nike, Adidas, Reebok, and Puma just to name a few. While Tom’s can’t hope to compete against the marketing budgets of these companies in a fair fight, they instead chose to take what makes them different, their USP, and disseminate it every chance they get. They have labeled themselves “The One for One” company. It’s in their homepage’s title tag, in every piece of marketing they put out, and it smacks you in the face when you land on their site. They even use the call-to-action “Get Good Karma” throughout their site.
Now as many of us may know, partially because of the scandal it created in late 2013, Tom’s is not actually a non-profit organization. No matter how you feel about the matter, this marketing strategy has created a positive effect on their bottom line. Fast Company conservatively estimated their revenues in 2013 at $250M, with many estimates being closer to the $300M mark. Not too bad of a slice of the pie when competing against the powerhouses Tom’s does.
Wherever you stand on this issue, Tom’s Shoes has done a phenomenal job of differentiating their brand from the big hitters in their industry.
Know your USP and disseminate it every chance you get.
This is worth repeating. Know your USP and disseminate it every chance you get, whether that be in title tags, ad copy, on-page copy, branding, or any other segment of your marketing campaigns. Online or offline, be different. And remember the quote that we started with, “The one who follows the crowd will usually go no further than the crowd. Those who walk alone are likely to find themselves in places no one has ever been before.”
The amount of marketing knowledge that can be taken from this one simple statement is astounding. Heed the words, stand out from the crowd, and you will have success.