Differentiate or die is the battle cry. Yet, despite best efforts, many marketers struggle to achieve meaningful differentiation in their offerings and value propositions.

Once differentiated, companies can reap the rewards and escape the gravitational pull towards the death star of price competition – easy, right? It is such an appealing and simple idea that just about every marketing textbook promotes it, every marketing consultant endorses it and every business attempts it.

In competitive markets, the reality is that many competitors offer similar products at similar prices. To achieve differentiation, therefore, companies must offer a better product or a better price. A valid argument but one built on an unsound premise.

The problem with differentiation is not that the concept doesn’t work. People always have, and always will, choose the offer that satisfies their immediate and unique needs.

The issue is with how many people go about attempting to achieve uniqueness. They may even be doing it partially correctly. But they may be missing the most important half of the equation. It’s time for a rethink.

Why Many Are Disappointed In Their Results

Most B2B marketers place enormous emphasis on objective differentiation or ‘building the better mousetrap’. They rank their value propositions objectively vs. competitor’s, in performance and quality, from highest to lowest.

If prices are similar, marketers fully expect that customers will choose the “better” product. When an offer does well in this type of objective ranking, it’s natural to be disappointed when sales don’t come flooding in.

This is a hard lesson in B2B reality: objective differentiation is necessary but not always sufficient.

The Type of Differentiation B2Bs Often Dangerously Ignore

What they likely overlooked is the harder-to-measure concept of subjective differentiation. They didn’t evaluate factors like awareness, availability, trust, liking, simplicity, credibility, authenticity, etc.

At this point, many of you might be thinking, “my B2B clients only care about the functionality and price” This seems like it is true, but it’s dead wrong.

The most successful B2B brands recognize the power of subjective differentiation. As proof, look at any list of Top B2B brands, like this one. Search for the name of the brand and its tagline, and you’ll see things like this:

  • Microsoft: “Your Potential. Our Passion”
  • UPS: “We Love Logistics”
  • Accenture: “Let There Be Change”

You’ll find that all of the top B2B brands pay meticulous attention to differentiating emotionally. These massively successful companies understand the latest scientific findings, which literally show that people are persuaded by logic but moved by emotion.

Emotional buying is not a B2C thing — it’s a human thing.

How To Assess Both Types of Differentiation

So how are you doing in this regard? Let’s measure.

We’ve written in other articles about our Ability to Compete (ATC) analysis — a tool for quantifying the perceived value of any offer, brand or portfolio. Essentially the ATC breaks down customer evaluation criteria into its component parts.

It also quantifies the relative importance your customer places on each component and how relatively strong (or weak) they see you in delivering it compared to your competition.

When conducting this analysis, B2B marketers typically load the ATC up with functional criteria only and then measure their advantages and disadvantages. This leads to the disappointment of winning on features and functions, but losing in the marketplace.

Functional advantages are important, but attention also needs to be paid to subjective, emotional differentiation factors like the previously mentioned trust, authenticity, simplicity, etc.

To find the emotions that matter in your industry, “ladder up” the highest weighted functional benefits by asking “why is that benefit important?” Keep asking until you land on an emotion.

Then, do an unbiased assessment of how well you and key competitors deliver on that factor. For example, if “simplicity” is a key emotional need in your market, what is the customer perception of how well you and your rivals deliver on it?

Many B2B marketers over-engineer products in markets that value simplicity. They “win” on objective benefits — but lose in the marketplace because they overwhelmed their customers.

Strategies To Motivate Buyer Action

To review, you must measure and address both your objective and subjective differentiation. What do you do if, when adding the emotional assessment, you suddenly realize why you are underperforming?

In our book The Accidental Marketer, we talk about how difficult it can be to compete against a subjective, emotional edge that a rival “owns.” Emotional advantages are long-lasting. But we also lay out several techniques in the book for countering their advantage.

One useful method is called “The Opposite Good.” It assumes that there are attractive, contrasting emotional alternatives to a position already owned by a competitor. For example, the good opposites of “simplicity” might be “sophistication”, “style” or “robustness.”

Say you concluded that owning “robust” would be a powerful, uncontested position to have in your market. Yes, you could build communications strategies around this concept — and you should.

But that’s just the start. You could get really serious and alter your entire targeting strategy to focus on segments that value this more than simplicity. Ironically, it could even lead you to re-conceive the functionality you originally built into your offer.

Follow the advice above, and you’ll move from a functional-only approach that led to false hopes of winning, to a balance successful strategy and value proposition that pays attention to both types of differentiation.

You’ll see that achieving a robust and sustainable advantage requires you to be differentiated objectively and subjectively. Both dimensions are important but remember this; subjective differentiation lasts; the objective type doesn’t.

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