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Sometimes, admitting you're second best is a good differentiation strategy.

differentiation strategy.

Building out a differentiation strategy has always struck me as a bit ridiculous.

It never actually involves brands differentiating themselves from their competitors. But, instead, brands basically just saying they’re the “best”.

No, they might not always use the verbiage “best”.

But, that’s what they’re insinuating as they litter their marketing communication with words like “innovative”… “disruptive”… “cutting edge”… “high-quality”… and other business buzzwords and jargon that leave prospective customers smelling something fishy and calling bull-shit.

Having written copy over at Honey Copy for brands in industries ranging from beauty to fitness to tech, I’ve realized that the most effective differentiation strategy must begin and end with honesty.

And, sometimes, that requires a brand swallowing its pride and admitting it’s the second best or the third best or even the fourth best.

Don’t take my word for it, though.

Let’s take a hard look at a real life example of where claiming second best paid off big as a differentiation strategy...

How accepting second best helped this brand win big.

Years ago, the rent-a-car space was booming with two major players leading the race –– Hertz and Avis.

At the time, Hertz owned a behemoth-sized chunk of the market share and was the undisputed “champion” in the industry.

Hertz knew it.

Avis knew it.

And, anyone who had ever rented a car knew it.

Yet, despite this, Avis marketed the way most brands do when they’re the clear second, they pretended they were first.

For thirteen years straight they were treading water and losing money with marketing campaigns making bold dishonest claims like…

“Finest in rent-a-cars.”

That was actually a slogan they used at one point.

Fortunately, one day, a savvy marketer came up with a rather provocative idea…

What if we were honest about where we stand in the rent-a-car industry?

This initial idea led to the following slogan…

“Avis is No. 2 in rent-a-cars. So why go with us? We try harder.”

Almost over-night, Avis started making money… an assload of money.

All because they swallowed their pride and admitted that they weren’t the best nor the finest nor the most innovative nor the most disruptive.

They sent out a very clear and honest marketing message… we are number two in rent-a-cars and because of this we have to try harder to keep up, which means we are going to try harder for you.

Well played, Avis.

(Well fucking played).

When it comes to designing a differentiation strategy, honesty is the best policy.

Even the best marketers in the world are guilty of the occasional stretching of the truth. Or, at the very least, a prettying of it.

However, in a world where everyone is making ridiculously bold claims about being the best all of the time… it’s refreshing to see a brand be honest every once in a while.

And, additionally, not take themselves so seriously that they can’t swallow their pride and admit that maybe, just maybe, they’re not the best.

However, this is certainly easier said than done.

When I get hired on to write pretty words for a brand, the last thing I want to tell them is…

Hey, you’re not the best. Now, let’s figure out how to sell whatever it is you are selling despite this.”

That’s a good way to get fired.

So, instead, in my head, I tell myself they’re second or third or fourth and come up with honest reasons folks would still spend their hard-earned money on them knowing this.

Differentiation strategies that actually make your customers want to buy whatever it is you are selling.

Generally, when I’m honest with myself about where the brand I’m working with sits at in the race, I can come up with great differentiators.

For a moment, let’s compare two very different brands that sell pens –– Pilot and Montblanc.

You would never, in a million years, claim a Pilot G2 pen is better than a Montblanc. Never.

However, what you can honestly claim is that a Pilot G2 is still damn good and over $400 cheaper than a Montblanc.

Some solid marketing language around this would be…

“One day, it might make sense for you to buy a fancy-schmancy pen. But, save your money for now and settle with an affordable pen that still writes like butter, the Pilot G2.”

Or…

“The Pilot G2, because you’re going to need a pen to sign the check to buy that Montblanc one day.”

Or…

“Anyone who can afford to buy a Montblanc didn’t start out signing checks with a Montblanc.”

Or…

“The Pilot G2 writes like poetry and you can afford it with a poet’s wage.”

Now, I’m not claiming these marketing messages are perfect (I wrote them out in a few minutes) but I think they are much better than G2 pulling an Avis and writing…

“Finest in pens”.

The bottom line is that every industry has hundreds of brands competing for a share of the market. This makes it impossible for there to be more than one best or finest.

Impossible.

So, if you are reading this right now, there is a good chance your brand is second or third or fourth.

Find the courage to admit you’re behind the market leader. Then, come up with an honest differentiation strategy you can use to sell your product or service despite not being the best.

But, I digress.

By Cole Schafer.


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Cole Schafer