The 4 Key Elements of Differentiation

Every successful business tells a story that differentiates themselves from the competition in their customers’ minds.

Differentiation boils down to telling a story, but there are 4 key elements that every business story can focus on (via marketing master Seth Godin): Comparison, affiliation, ritual, and fear.

The real pros get multiplier points by being conscientious of how these elements frame and describe the individual attributes of their product and/or service. They also know that explaining what something IS NOT can be as powerful, if not more, than trying to tell someone what something IS. They do this by remembering the difference between high-priced (scarce) items and low-priced (abundant) items.

Let’s break down each of the elements.

Comparison: what should we compare this to or contrast it against? Think in “is / is not” terms.

Affiliation: who does having this product or service put us in rank / on level / in a tribe / in a foxhole with? What about who does it separate us from?

Ritual: how does this experience remind us of other positive experiences?

Fear: what fear does this alleviate?

Now we can make an example of how everything fits together. We’ll consider how a luxury car company would market themselves compared to a used-car dealer. No name brands necessary.

Luxury Car Company:

Comparison (broad attribute list): consider these popular tag lines: power, beauty, and soul; power, driving, and pleasure; the ultimate driving machine. With luxury, high-priced, or scarce items you don’t want to mock non-competitors that aren’t considered in your league (no one likes a bully), but you can knock a known competitor. The goal is to fill the consumer’s mind with adjectives that suggest, “this is the best of the best.”

Affiliation: remind consumers of “who” drives your cars. My favorite examples are how kids / pets / non-drivers are portrayed in these commercials as signals for who is affiliated with this elite group. Do you think Matthew McConaughey and his dogs are going to be ordering sushi from the back of a 2 door family sedan?

Ritual: It’s an unwritten rule – you never show or discuss the daily commute and gridlock traffic, you instead remind them of driving heaven, going fast on a winding road through the hills, making killer turns, or… anything that suggests the ritual of driving is related to these peak experiences.

Fear: you do want to be in this club and stand out from everyone else, don’t you? You don’t want to be excluded from driving excellence, do you? You can keep up, can’t you? Scarcity threatens exclusion and missed opportunities.

Cleanse your palate, let’s look at the other side.

Used car dealer:

Comparison:  Consider these common tag lines: honest; no hassle; everyone gets approved; no credit? No problem! Used car dealers want you to feel like you can trust them to help you make a big decision that you need to make. The comparison is all about pressure alleviation through a “safe” environment.

Affiliation: everyday people, real people, regular people, people who need some help – NOT those fussy fancy car people, but the sensible car you want and need and can afford. Again, watch for the non-drivers in these ads. These commercials feature kids who need to get to soccer games, messy dogs, etc.

Ritual: the peak experience isn’t the driving of the car, it’s the worry-free sales process. “You’ll get a good deal, we’ll get you approved for a loan, and you won’t end up with a lemon” is the focus. If the ritual is done correctly, people will come back.

Fear: you don’t want to get ripped off do you? Taken advantage of? Swindled? Denied for your bad credit history? Have the car breakdown next week when you need it to last almost forever?

Take a moment and reflect on these scenarios. Do you notice how they are both pretty appealing? Do you notice how they both make compelling cases?

There’s a beauty in communicating an item well. There’s a beauty in understanding something intuitively because we aren’t fishing for our own adjectives. We like when things click. We’re lazy after all.

There are lots of things in our daily lives that we don’t fully understand. We all make choices and decisions based on descriptions of those things. Sometimes they’re our own ideas, but often times they’re ideas that have been influenced by others. If we really want to make the world a better place, then we need to be aware of how these mechanics work.

It’s a big task to stay aware of all these details, but it’s the only way to create “good” products and services, and vet the “bad” ones out of our own lives. It’s a big task, but we have to be up for it.

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