I’ve always felt the desire to stand out.
From dyeing my hair bright red as a child to figuring out how to build a distinctive brand, differentiation has been the name of the game for me.
Today, I teach workshops on differentiation, i.e. the act of standing out in a crowded market.
But I was initially disappointed by the way most books approached differentiation.
When you start studying the topic, everyone will tell you, you need to stand out. You need to be different. You need to tell stories. You need to be controversial.
It's incredibly difficult. If not impossible at this stage to find actual resources, to teach you how to actually do it.
In this post, I’m going over five steps to help your brand radically stand out.
Many people assume that picking a small, defined niche is the same as differentiating.
That’s not the case.
It's not exactly like creating a niche product because some niches are actually very busy. So you could be the same than anyone else in the niche.
Yes, your market might be smaller, but you still compete in a very crowded market.
Sure, these tricks might get your audience to briefly notice you.
But if they dive deeper and don’t find a compelling product behind your marketing bravado, they will quickly lose interest.
Finally, don’t worry about competing on the scale of mass production.
You have mass products that are both boring and the same. We just simply can't compete with mass products, because they don't pay in the same battlefield.
To differentiate successfully, you need to be strategic. You can’t just aim to be different for the sake of being different.
I created a marketing agency years ago and I bought this beautiful three-piece suit. I took those cheesy pictures in the city center of Dublin, because I thought that that's what people expected of me to be a marketing consultant.
You need to wear a three-piece suit and you need to look boring and very serious. And that was a big mistake of mine.
It was this epiphany that led me to try to stand out, even before the concept of differentiation was a hot topic.
I realized that just fitting in with the crowd wasn’t going to work for me. And I suspected that it wouldn’t work well for other small brands, too.
Realizing my mistakes, I've done a few things, including launching a contrarian marketing podcast called Everyone Hates Marketers.
So what are the steps I took to achieve radical differentiation?
The roadblocks to differentiating exist in your mind. It might sound a bit sci-fi, but our minds play tricks on us that prevent us from taking risks and standing out.
The voice in your head might caution you against being different.
It’s too risky. It will go wrong. It will fail miserably.
But the truth is, you’ll have a greater chance of failing from a product marketing standpoint if you don’t differentiate.
There's so much clutter online, so much going on. If you don't take some risk, it's going to be extremely risky for you.
So standing out is not risky. Not standing out is risky.
You can’t let yourself fall into the trap of creating average products for average people, just because that’s what everyone else is doing.
That goes back to our primal hunter-gatherer mindset.
Historically, people needed to stick together for safety. You didn’t want to be the caveperson that wandered out into the forest alone.
While that type of fear may be coded into our DNA, we can’t let it control us when it comes to modern-day business decisions.
If you want to be noticed, if you want to make sure that you sell your product or service, you're going to have to stick your head out and try new things.
And so it's not about everyone else is doing it this way, and therefore we must follow them. It's everyone that says do it this way. Therefore, we must do something different.
Another self-limiting belief that people fall prey to is keeping their focus too broad.
As humans, we worry that if we look in one direction, we’ll miss out on the opportunities coming from the other direction.
But in this case, some degree of focus is valuable to help you reach radical differentiation.
From a marketing standpoint, trying to target everyone in the world, for any type of service, means that you’ll miss the value that comes from building expertise.
From the customer standpoint, the more choices available to them in front of them, the less happy they’re going to be about their final choice.
When people would have so many products to pick from in the same category and they're all the same, they're gonna feel less happy about the ultimate choice that they make.
And instead, if you are the only choice in that category, if you do this thing very well for this particular segment, they’re going to feel happier.
To sum up Step #1, when it comes to differentiating, it’s time to free your mind.
In order to focus on the pursuit of market expertise and happy customers as discussed above, you must identify your minimum viable market.
While many brands hesitate to do this, it’s necessary for success.
It goes back to the idea that the only thing to fear is fear itself:
“Oh, we might lose out on making more money.”
“If you pick a very small market, we’re not going to make ends meet.”
Minimum viable means it's small enough for you to really obsess over and to own, but it's big enough for you to make money out of.
Identifying your minimum viable market doesn’t mean picking a small pond. It means making calculating choices about the perfectly sized lake you want to live in as a brand.
And then there’s another part of our brain that influences these decisions: the orbitofrontal cortex (OFC).
Simply put, it’s the part of our brain that assigns value based on our goals and rewards.
Ultimately, our behavior as humans is driven by the difference between our actual physical/mental state and our desired state.
As marketers, we need to help customers fight against their anxieties and existing habits in order to help them get where they want to go.
You can picture it like climbing up a hill, as pictured below.
Your job as a marketer, as a creator, as an entrepreneur, is simply to make the move into that hill. You want to make sure that you stand out.
Start by identifying customers based on four criteria. And no, the first criteria is not the amount of money those customers can potentially help you make.
The four criteria to use on your way to radical differentiation are:
Together, the answers to these questions should help you zero in on who your best customers are.
Identifying your target customer is not enough. You need on-the-ground research. In other words, you need to talk to them.
Talk to at least three of your customers, and act like a journalist. Don’t try to sell them anything. You're trying to just listen and hear their issues.
Pick the brains of your competitors' customers.
Find brands offering alternative solutions to the one you are considering, in roughly the same market category.
Then, talk to their customers by asking questions like:
Your goal is to go to the edge of the map, meaning you don't want to pick a segment that is just average. They don't really care. They don't really love you. They don't really know. You want to go to the edge of the map.
Finding a target customer group doesn’t necessarily mean you decide to target a specific demographic.
Your audience may not be 2-40 year-olds in the United States. It means finding people who suffer from the same problem.
Whatever the problem may be, your ideal customer is thinking about it often.
It means speaking to people who stay literally awake at night, staring at the ceiling because they suffer from the problem you solve.
It means people who want to reach their goals so much, they want to go to the top of that hill so much that they’re begging almost for a solution like yours.
Once your customer outreach gives you the confidence that you have found those people, stick with them. Stay the course, and don’t flip flop between markets.
When your goal is to be radically different, you can frame the status quo as the “enemy.”
The status quo is something that is not working for people. And drawing attention to what is not working will soon draw attention to your solution.
Conspiracy theories and marketers and creators have something in common. They seek a kind of an enemy outside in the world so that they understand the world in a better way, right?
You want to give comfort to your customers by pointing at an enemy, a status quo that they can understand that causes the pain that they're feeling.
When I worked for Hotjar, the status quo that my team identified was traditional web analytics tools.
While such tools help analyze traffic data, they don't tell you what users really do on your website.
Instead of framing the enemy as a competitor, which would have been difficult, Hotjar framed the enemy as the current status quo analytics solutions.
Your status quo is rarely your direct competitor. It's the thing they do instead of using you.
When you don’t call out competitors by name, you also serve to make yourself less threatening.
Now that you have your target market, target customers, and target “enemy” identified, it’s time for the fun part: engineering your radical differentiation.
This comes in the form of creating a simple statement:
The only [category] that [provides value] for [market].
In other words, you need to come up with an elevator pitch for how you help solve a problem or achieve a goal for your specific minimum viable market.
The intersection of the three things is what matters. When you change one, you change the rest.
When you change a category, you change the value you provide, you change potentially the market. So it's a cycle that you need to go through quite regularly.
We must remove anything that doesn't elevate what customers already love about you. We must relentlessly be removing stuff. We must remove stuff that people consider to be cliches that they hate.
If you do add to your product, do so carefully. If those additions serve to further alleviate their biggest pain, it makes sense to do so.
If additions will obscure your focus on the customer pain, they should be ignored.
Several years ago, a new candidate went from being completely unknown to being the current president of France.
He didn’t align himself with the right or the left. Instead, he removed all the career politicians from his party, and almost all of the corporate donors.
This strategy helped him to rise above the traditional “right versus left” debate and become the winning candidate.
Now that you have your plan of attack, it’s time to use it to jolt people into action.
As marketers, creatives, and entrepreneurs, we need to chase people outside of their habits.
Your job is really to fight against this inertia of habit, pulling them into where they currently are, and to fight against this anxiety that they’re feeling about trying a new solution.
To break through customers’ existing decision-making processes, employ:
While it takes courage to pursue a radically different path, it works.
If you take the time to figure out who your customers are, what they need, and present it in a compelling way, radical success is within your reach.