– Thoughts on Strategy and Management

How do you differentiate (or not)?

I made a quick and dirty competitor benchmarking today in the office. This was a spontaneous idea when I worked on the profile of one of my company’s competitors. When doing this I realised how many buzzwords this company used to describe how great it is and why customers should do business with this company and not with the competitors.
So I decided to have a look at all major players in our industry (specialised financial services) in our local market. The result turned out to be something like “bullshit bingo”. Here is how many companies out of ten used particular terms or their equivalents:

  • Individual / tailor-made products or solutions – 8 out of 10
  • lean processes / flat hierarchies / quick decision making – 6
  • speed in general – 6
  • reliability – 5
  • expert know-how – 5
  • competitive prices – 4
  • flexibility – 4

The good news in this research was that 7 out of these 10 companies bothered to mention one or more characteristics that were more or less unique (or at least not used by the others).

This result left me a bit surprised. OK, not too much surprised since I had suspected something like that. How on earth plan these companies to differentiate themselves from the rest of the crowd if they all use the same marketing language? I acknowledge that they all have fairly the same business model and that characteristics like good prices, quick decision making and individual solutions are crucial. But in this case these characteristics are more a necessary prerequisite than a differentiator.
It fits quite nicely into this picture that everybody in the industry is telling me that price competition is more than fierce at the moment.

I also acknowledge that this is a people business and differentiation is – among others – achieved by the individual one-to-one relationships. Obviously, this is hard to describe on a corporate website. Nevertheless, if it is not possible to develop some offerings or competencies that are really unique, wouldn’t it be worth to invest a bit more creativity into the corporate self-portraits?

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