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A short punchy guide to product differentiation.

product differentiation

Product differentiation is a term thrown around constantly –– especially during those mid-morning caffeine-fueled marketing meetings. 

It doesn’t matter how many times you and the team discuss what your product differentiation is, there’s always another way to spin it to give it that extra oomph-powered pizzazz

Now, before I go on a rant about why I don’t think product differentiation matters (or at least less so than something I call marketing differentiation), I would be remiss if I didn’t begin by describing what it is. 

Investopedia describes product differentiation as being a marketing process that showcases the differences between products.

If you’re thinking to yourself –– well that’s a pretty shitty definition –– you’re right. It is. Unfortunately, it was the first thing that came up when I typed product differentiation into Google. 

Now, while mine might not be much better, it should, at the very least, give us a place to start.


Product differentiation is describing how your product is better than your competitor's product. 

*surprised gasps from the audience*

Okay, while that might not make it into the marketing definition hall of fame, it gives us something to work with. 

The reason marketers care so much about product differentiation is because they believe it is why we buy their product over their competitor's product. And, they're right, to a certain extent. 

After all, the reason you buy Apple over Windows is because a Mac is different (in a better kind of way) than whatever fancy schmancy laptop Windows sells –– or at least you think so. If you were to ask a die-hard Windows lover they'd say Windows takes the cake (in a better different kind of way) and they may even tell you to burn in hell. 

If a marketer can effectively explain to a customer why their product is better than their competitors, they can drive more sales. Or, at least that's the idea.

Between this philosophy and the fact that there are endless ways products can differ from one another –– price, features, quality, quantity, luxury, convenience, etc –– marketers partake in this endless conversation about product differentiation. 

However, as someone that works with startups on marketing their stuff to folks who’ve probably never heard of them, I’ve come to an interesting conclusion –– there is an opportunity out there to drive sales by differentiating your marketing and not your product. 

A lot of brands assume that if they slide into someone's email inbox and start telling them why their widget is better than Mark’s widget down the street (a.k.a product differentiation), they will sell more of their widgets. 

But here’s the big kicker –– if the brand’s customers have never heard of the brand but they’ve heard of Mark’s down the street… they’re not going to give them the time of day. 

To toss in a few handfuls of psychology (if you can even call it that), it’s like a complete stranger walking up to you at a coffee shop and saying… “Do you want to run to the bathroom and have sex real quick?”

While this is some people’s idea of a beautiful sexual fantasy… it would creep the vast majority of people out. 

This is what happens when you start telling your customers about your product differentiation before you even shake their hands and say hello.

Take them to dinner first for God's sake.

I recommend that brands focus on differentiating their marketing when starting out –– their product differentiation will happen naturally on account that they're not selling a shitty one.

If brands are willing to invest enough time, energy and money to differentiate how they communicate and market to their customers –– customers might be more inclined to sit down and hear what the brand has to say when it comes to the product or service they're selling.

There are endless examples of brands successfully doing this. And, since I'm obsessed with brilliant brands doing brilliant things, I've shared a few examples of brands successfully leveraging marketing differentiation below:

1. Basecamp has a killer blog called Signal v. Noise. There is no reason for them to have a killer blog but they do because they aren't just differentiating their product they're differentiating their marketing. 

2. Grammarly helps you write clearly and with precision (and catches the nasty typos we're all guilty of making). However, their blog is an entirely different beast in itself –– a force to be reckoned with. It's a massive blog dedicated to grammar that you actually want to read. 

3. Urban Outfitters sells a lifestyle first, clothes second. Take a quick glance at their website and you can see they've put in just as much time differentiating their marketing and branding as they have the clothes they're selling. 

4. Red Bull has built an entire brand around marketing differentiation. Go to their site and try to buy an energy drink, the first thing you'll see is a pair of crazy kayakers doing crazy kayaking things. 

5. Snowbird Ski Resort has differentiated their marketing by creating massive billboards and other marketing materials out of negative customer reviews like, "There are no easy runs." They've done a fascinating job with their marketing and advertising. I wrote more about them, here

Product differentiation sells the product, marketing differentiation starts the conversation.  

While I'm a marketing geek I am by no means an expert (not yet anyway). This article is more or less an observation I've made while slinging content and copy for brands and taking notice of what sticks. 

In my opinion, the conversation with the customer should begin through marketing differentiation –– doing something valuable or noteworthy in your marketing –– whether that be the tone of voice in your emails or the deep insight shared in your blog posts. 

From there, once you've started that conversation, built up some trust and rapport, then you tell them about your product differentiation. 

It goes back to that stranger in the coffee shop. Let's get to know each other first. 

By Cole Schafer

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Cole Schafer