Being different vs. saying “We’re different”
First, be different
Someone said something very nice about my company the other day. I was meeting a marketing agency boss – someone I respect – who owns half of an agency I would love to have as a client. Always nice. Anyway, they’re reviewing their new business provisions and we’re up against a few of our competitors. He said:
“Your competitors all sent me documents that started out by telling me that they’re different, but didn’t go on to tell me how or why. What you sent me just laid out how you do things and the differences were clear”.
Now, a lot of positive things were said in the meeting. Obviously I claimed that we’re a fantastic new business agency and I asserted that we’d be perfectly suited to them. Both of those things are true, but the thing that stood out for me was the quote above. Literally all of our competitors had claimed to be different. And so they looked the same. This got me thinking.
Of course some people will say that their company is different and then explain how. If that’s the case then they need to make sure their differences are actually unique in some way. Every agency is unique, but summing up why often leads us into “so what?” territory. If you’re going to claim difference then test your claim. Look around at your competition. If you’re not as different as you thought then don’t panic – it’s not always about being different. As Seth Godin told us, using the metaphor of an oddly coloured bovine creature, it’s not even about being better.
Apologies to Seth for borrowing his mantra, but being remarkable is often more attractive than just being better, or arbitrarily being different. Tell people how and why you’re remarkable and let them decide if you’re different in any useful way.
Differences that aren’t different
A cursory look around online uncovers dozens of agencies across every discipline who claim some unique set of values. I’m going to pick on 3 Degrees Agency. I don’t know them personally but I know they’ve done some great work for companies like Cogenta, Taxishare and Endemol. Their reputation is good (speaking to client-side people all day, we hear some stories about agencies, but 3 Degrees isn’t one we’ve ever heard a bad word about) and their site is nice enough. They claim these three differences (I’ve paraphrased a little):
1: We care – With every project, we take the time to get to know you, your company and your customers. We like to form lasting, mutually beneficial relationships with all of our clients.
2: No fluff – We’re a small team, which means you get to work directly with those assigned to your project – never more than a phone call or email away.
3: Results led – It’s not all fun and games, at the end of the day we pride ourselves on providing you with great ROI. Our aim is always to make your competitors jealous and your customers (and accountant) smile.
All of these are nice, positive values to have, but they’re not unique. In fact, the opposite of each of them is essentially unthinkable to a small agency. There will certainly be genuine differences between this agency and their peers, but none of these three are any of them.
It’s not just agencies of course – Hackett Equity Solutions (again, sorry to pick on one company – I’m sure they’re brilliant) are apparently different because:
“Our difference is based on our authentic no nonsense approach which puts people at the heart of everything we do, we understand that no successful business can be built without the people at the centre possessing the passion, drive, ambition and desire to succeed. With this in mind our aim is always to help build the structures around those key people which allows them to focus on their strengths, whilst we provide solutions to areas which are identified as needing to be improved.”
I’m going to sound picky and a little glib, but nobody out there is claiming a “nonsense approach” which “puts people at the very margins of what they do”. Nobody claims to hire people with apathy, ambivalence and a desire to fail miserably. Furthermore, no company builds structures around people to nullify their strengths. In short, their apparent differences are just a paragraph of positive rhetoric. Again, I bet they have some really interesting unique values. They just haven’t told us what they are.
Differentiation is something that nearly everybody claims to have, so unless you’re going to back it up – unless you’re actually different then saying you’re different is the most samey thing you can do.