Distinct > Different.

What’s the difference between differentiation and distinctiveness? Why should we care? It’s more than semantics, it’s how we stand out and earn our value. Knowing the difference can help us find our future clients, and help our future clients find us. 


Differentiation is a benefit or a reason to buy from a consumer perspective. Differentiation can be as simple as price and as broad as categorical. We can buy whichever bottles of water are on sale (“it looks like Dasani is cheaper than Poland Spring this week”), or we can prefer farmer’s market fruit to the grocery store’s fruit (“I only buy local”).  Nobody gets sued for being different.


Distinctiveness is whatever makes a thing look like itself, or more commonly, what we call “brand.” Distinctiveness is all about the perceived value that takes priority over price. Soda drinkers prefer Coke over Pepsi, or “choosy moms choose Jiff.” Companies can sue over the secret formula/intellectual property/“likeness” that falls under distinctiveness. 


Different and distinctiveness don’t just exist for the companies we work for, they exist locally as well. Saying “there are people who do that in Albany” is not the same as “there’s a guy named Jack in Albany who specializes in exactly what you’re looking for.” Difference is about a shortcut with a proxy, distinctiveness is about a story. Like Jack, we want to be individuals/teams/companies with a distinct story for this reason – how else are people going to talk about us? 


If a person wants cheap financial advice (re: trading costs) they go to a discount broker. The differentiation is cost. No one has ever said, “I want to pay an arm and a leg for financial advice,” but someone certainly has said, “my advisor is great, they’re worth every penny for how easy they make things.” That statement makes a distinction between their advisor and every other option in the world. A follow-up “why?” to the “my advisor is great” person would produce all sorts of anecdotes, the key being successful brands understand what their clients value in them. 


Personal is powerful, and it’s our own idiosyncrasies that help create our personal brand. We have to invest in that story by doing our best work and providing an exceptional experience. We don’t want to be hired for bland differentiation, we want to be hired for brand distinction. The people that will work with us tomorrow aren’t coming unless there’s a good story to tell – from us to them, and from them to themselves (and if we’re really good, maybe a friend or two, too).


For more on this concept, see Byron Sharp’s “Differentiation vs Distinctiveness,” and Mark Ritson’s “Distinctiveness doesn’t need to come at the cost of differentiation.”


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