Dig Deeper To Brand Better

When it comes to differentiating your business, the deeper you dig, the better (and more authentically) you build your business.
Choice Magazine cover, June 2010

This article first appeared in the June 2010 issue of Choice. Click the image to download a PDF copy.

Imagine you are the first doctor to travel to a small, remote village. In addition to being the only doctor in the village, you’d of course be the best doctor in the village. When someone needs a doctor (and knows they need a doctor), they call you.

Your biggest challenge at this stage is lack of education, as most of the people in the village aren’t familiar with what medicine can do for them, as opposed to whatever healing arts or science they were depending on before. So, your marketing job consists of helping people understand, ‘Why modern medicine?’ (or, why not — for something like a broken arm — a spiritual advisor, witch doctor, shaman, priest or other old world healer?)

Now imagine the village is increasing in population. With the promise of a ready clientele, more doctors move into the area. At first, you welcome the assistance of other doctors. The presence of other doctors legitimizes the work you do, raises awareness among the villagers or indigenous people, and creates more demand for all the doctors as the people learn about the many ways they could be served by doctors.

It’s all good until even more doctors are attracted to the area, and people begin to ask themselves, which doctor should I go to?’

Now your biggest challenge is one of competition, as you help people understand, ‘Why me?’

That’s why we have doctors who specialize by part of the body – cardiologists, podiatrists and nephrologists. We have doctors who specialize in type of patient – pediatricians, gynecologists and veterinarians. We have doctors who focus on geographic regions. And we have doctors who work in small teams, in large corporations and as individual ‘freelancers’.

And as each specialty fills up with more people, it gets sliced and diced into finer and finer sub-specialties.

The same is true of lawyers, accountants, consultants – and every independent professional, including coaches.

If you replace ‘doctor’ with the name of the sandbox you play in, chances are you’ll see this is where you are in the evolution of your industry.

The truth is, the days are already long gone when you can credibly say, ‘my product or service is suitable for all different kinds of clients and industry segments’.

Whether you are a coach, consultant advisor, real estate agent, accountant, lawyer, financial advisor, value-added reseller, software developer or whether you are employed and in compared against everyone else who has the same title as you have — the biggest challenge you face today is how to differentiate yourself against everyone else in your field who does roughly the same thing you do and who makes the same kind of promises as you do.

In this stage of history of your industry and the market demand for your services, differentiation is at the core of success in business. Quite simply, the stronger your differentiation in the market, the bigger your opportunity to stand out, make a name for yourself, attract higher quality clients, charge higher fees – and all those other things the little ads on the side of your Facebook profile promise.

Five Layers of Differentiation

Archeologists define and talk about the different layers they uncover during an archeological dig. These may be deposits or ‘blanket-like’ layers of soil linked to geology or occupation. Each layer holds man-made objects or natural features that help us learn about the history of our civilization.

Let me take you on a different kind of archeological dig. In this dig, you’ll discover five different layers of differentiation that are available to you. What you’ll see is that the deepest levels link directly to the core of who you are as a person, and they provide you with the greatest leverage as you build your business, regardless of whether you are starting out or you are a veteran in your field.

The First Layer: ‘What’ Differentiation

Before you actually start doing the hard work of digging, scan the ground for obvious signs of ‘What’ Differentiation.

The first place that sales, marketing and branding consultants look is in the results you get – ‘what’ you can claim or promise. This is top-level differentiation because it doesn’t even scratch the surface of your authentic differentiation, but it can be very powerful if you hit on something big.

‘What’ Differentiation can be best described by this very straight-forward question: Do you get better results than everyone else in your industry?

Of course, this very straight-forward question requires that you specifically identify the kind of results that people expect from hiring you, and then that you have a quantitative measure that allows you to compare your performance against that of everyone else.

Defining Your ‘What’

What we’re looking for here are the generic, quantitative end results that everyone in your field would love to promise. It’s what your clients and customers want when all is said and done.

If you are head of sales or marketing of a mutual fund company, you’d be looking at the returns you achieve for your fund holders. If you are a real estate agent acting on behalf of sellers, you’d be looking at the selling price you negotiate on behalf of your clients. If you are a business or sales coach, you can look for the increase in revenue or business valuation you help your clients achieve.

Obviously, the kind of results you are looking for depends on the nature of your business. In business coaching or other business-to-business services, the usual cast of characters includes: sales and revenue, net profit, productivity or efficiency, cost of raw materials, and so on. In life coaching or some derivative of it, the usual cast of characters relate to the success rate in achieving the desired result: finding a significant other, losing weight, or the achievement of any goal that’s relevant to your specific field of coaching.

Once you know the end ‘what’ result that people are looking for from your service – and you have a quantitative measure of performance for that result – you simply need to prove that you are better than everyone else.

It’s as simple as a race or contest. If you run faster, lift more weight or spit further than everyone else, (assuming that’s what your clients are paying you for), then why not make your scores the centre-piece of your marketing and sales efforts?

In other words, if your ‘what’ is better than anyone else’s ‘what’, then you owe it to yourself and your potential clients to proudly shout it out.

‘What’ differentiation is extremely compelling because it relates directly to what your customers ultimately want, and if it’s quantifiable, it’s simple to prove — or disprove.

The Problem With ‘What’

Already, you can see how problematic this might be. Even mutual fund companies and financial advisors – who are often compared on the basis of simple growth rates or returns on investment – shy away from ‘What’ Differentiation. End results are simply too fickle to count on as an ongoing strategy.

In many fields, it’s even more problematic than that. MChances are, most of the work you do cannot be quantified, and even if it were quantifiable, statistics don’t readily exist that allow you to compare your performance with everyone else’s.

But before you abandon this approach entirely, it’s an extremely helpful exercise for you to identify what specific variables you would use for ‘What’ Differentiation if you could. Almost any communication you have with potential clients, either in verbal conversation or written on your home page, should relate to the end results your clients are paying their hard-earned money for. Compelling testimonials have to be selected or coached out of clients with a clear idea of the end results you promise.

Are you scattered all over the place or can you narrow down the end results to a few you can at least claim expertise in and success with?

Once you can jot down three ‘what’ variables that are directly related to the work you do, it’s time to grab your shovel.

The Second Layer: ‘Who, Where and When’ Differentiation

In archeological terms, just below the surface is what’s called the hardpan layer. It consists of a relatively hard layer of soil at or just below the ground surface. When you’re digging for differentiation, this layer consists of Who, Where and When.

Who, Where and When Differentiation is the second place that sales, marketing and branding consultants look when positioning their clients in the market. Some charge hefty fees to dig here, but in truth, they hardly break a sweat before putting down their shovel.

The thinking behind Who, Where and When Differentiation goes something like this: If you can’t legitimately and credibly claim that you are the best in your field, how can you narrow the definition of your field or highlight an aspect of your business so that you can be best or unique in ‘something’?

Defining Your ‘Who, Where and When’

The most common ways you can do this are by digging up your who, where and when variables: geography/location (the only lawyer in Pittsville); type of customer (the only coach for lawyers); and stage of life or business (the only coach for pre-menopausal women experiencing ‘empty-nest’ syndrome).

Note that this exercise may lead you to redefine your industry; who you compare your results with. In other words, the ‘everyone else in your industry’ mentioned in ‘What’ Differentiation earlier is up for interpretation. A mutual fund company or financial advisor may define their industry as all other mutual funds, where it might be an average performer — or all other green & ethical funds, where it might stand out as the top performer.

Finding compelling points of difference using this layer of differentiation depends on how relevant the narrower definition of your field is to your clients and customers, and on how obvious the connection is between your claim and the end results you pinpointed in What Differentiation.

For example, you may be the only consultant in Pittsville, and if being able to meet in person is either important to (at least some) clients or you can demonstrate the link between in-person meetings and end results, then you may have a very real and compelling differentiating advantage. In this example, you really are the best consultant for clients in Pittsville. But, if face-to-face meetings have little or no value to the people who would buy your brand of consulting, then this narrower definition has little or no value to you as a differentiator.

Your World=Your Micromarket

In Seth Godin’s book The Dip, the author goads his readers to become the best in the world. How? By seeing that the world is really the micromarket that you define. Who, Where and When Differentiation give you variables to do it.

This second layer also includes the ‘lesser what’s’. These refer to the secondary benefits that people look for, such as: customer service, convenience, time involved (faster deliver or longest warranty), broadest selection and countless other things that may or may not be important to customers and clients.

Can you narrow the definition of what you do, where you do it, when you do it or who you do it for that would enable you to claim a differentiating advantage?

The Third Layer: Upper ‘Why’ Differentiation

Upper Why Differentiation answers a key question always at the back of potential clients’ minds, whether the person verbalizes it or not: ‘Why should I believe you have the capability to do what you say you can do?’

That’s why big box stores often compete on the basis of size: ‘We save you money because we get our goods at a lower prices because we buy more because we are bigger.’

Boutique stores take the opposite tack: ‘We provide better personalized service because we are smaller.’

Investment advisors, real estate agents, consultants, coaches and the full range of other independent professionals often use years of experience, client list, or credentials:

‘Fred Smith, CPP, MBA, IRC, MS Gold Partner, Master Certified’; ‘senior partners have over a hundred years combined experience’.

Of course, nothing is stopping a young or new entrant to the industry from using their newness to the field as a differentiating advantage. After all, who better than the upstart to provide fresh thinking, latest techniques or a totally new perspective?

You Should Believe Me Because…

In all these examples, the service provider is attempting to capitalize on deeply embedded links and associations in the customer’s mind: what end result people generally expect from what differentiator.

What do you tell your clients to give them more confidence that you can actually deliver the goods?

Smart marketers dig at least to this layer of differentiation – but there are deeper, even more powerful layers to explore. That’s why the Upper Why layer of Differentiation is a transition layer, as we move from a client-focused perspective to one that begins to look at ways of differentiating the business in ways that link more directly and personally to the provider of the service.

But before we get to ‘Deeper Why Differentiation’, we need to dig through another layer – the ‘How’.

The Fourth Layer: ‘How’ Differentiation

Traditional marketers often ignore ‘how’. They believe that customers don’t care how you get them the results they want, as long as you get them. This may have been wonderful advice when there were only two or three major players in the market, but in a world where there are thousands of other service providers who all claim to get the same results as you, ‘how’ is the first layer that uncovers the big differentiators. It’s also the first layer that reaches the authentic bits we went on this archeological dig to begin with.

Hold on tight to your shovel because here is where you have to do the heavy lifting.

Defining Your ‘How’

Do you have a unique approach in the work you do? Do you have a comprehensive system or discovery process? Is there one step of an established process that you do especially well? Or, is there a secret ingredient you add to a popular recipe that makes it even better?

If you’re like most coaches (and indeed, like most people), the answer is a resounding, ‘I don’t know.’

In fact, most people tell me that the way they work is intuitive – they just do it naturally. Some client believe they have a gut feel for what works. And as a result they never look into their own methodology with any depth.

But here is where it gets really interesting – because ‘how’ you do what you do is as unique to you as who you are. No one is wired quite the same way you are, and no one has the same set of formative experiences, perspective or DNA. Like it or not, you have a unique way of viewing the world around you. Things that may seem obvious to you are totally ignored by others faced with the same challenge. You may pick up certain pieces of the puzzle that other people leave on the floor.

Is it such a stretch to see that all of this personal baggage – good and bad — influences your MO in your professional work?

Your ‘How’ Is Invisible To You

The truth is, it’s hard to look at the way you operate at such a deep level. To begin with, most of your subconscious processes are invisible to you precisely because they are subconscious. You simply have no awareness of what you are doing and what you are thinking.

Is it possible that ‘intuition’ is nothing more mysterious than your brain working faster than your ability to notice what’s going on in there?

Surprise… your uniqueness as a person influences your
uniqueness as a business!

That’s why your greatest strengths are invisible to yourself. That’s also why, if you are serious about digging to this level of differentiation, you have to be prepared to dig through the obvious answers about what sets you apart and pick through your own thought processes one at a time. You probably need some help with this, as clarity about ourselves is rarely as evident as clarity about others.

Digging Deeper Into ‘How’

Your ‘how’ is as unique as you are. Even if you are applying a rigid methodology, the way you implement or apply it — unless you are a pre-programmed robot – is influenced by who you are as an individual. That’s why the exercises I created as part of the Essential Message approach work: they help surface the subconscious thought patterns, behaviors and processes that influence your ‘how’.

Another way to look at it is this: your ‘how’ is different from everyone else’s ‘how’ in at least one significant way. My job as an Essential Message practitioner is to help you dig deep enough so you discover what that way is.

‘How’ Differentiation is most powerful in mature industries which have a lot of competitors. Like the evolution of the medical industry in the example at the start of this ebook, the general public already understands ‘why a modern medical doctor?’. They no longer have to be educated on this point – just like we no longer have to educate people on ‘why an accountant?’; ‘why a lawyer?’; ‘why a consultant?’, ‘why a real estate agent?’…

In these educated, mature environments, ‘how’ is the differentiator. It’s not that your methodology is necessarily better (although it could be, and you should certainly be convinced that it is), but more importantly, you will attract your best clients when your methodology simply and plainly, makes sense more to them than the methodologies of your competitiors.

Exploring your unique approach also helps you discover which specific aspect of the general service you excel at. For example, when I conducted a ‘What Drives You Crazy Makes You Great!’ workshop for a roomful event planners, everyone was amazed at the diversity of subspecialities in the room. One event planner was especially skilled at legal agreements; one had unique talent in the area of crowd control; another focused on technology; and so on.

The subspeciality was the ‘how’ each event planner unknowingly relied on to ensure a successful event. They came into the workshop believing they all did the same thing, and left the workshop with fresh appreciation of each others’ capabilities – as well as of their own.

You may find, as I did, that you are so good in one particular area that you can create an entirely new niche within your general category.

Turning Your ‘How’ Into Your ‘What’

When I ran my advertising agency, I offered the full suite of advertising services. While I was competent in most areas, exploring my approach made me realize that I devoted an inordinate amount of energy on differentiation as a means to develop compelling core messaging. It was my ‘how’. And the feedback I got most often from clients confirmed its impact. Comments typically went something like this: ‘Michel, for the first time in our history, we have an absolute clear idea of who we are as an organization, what we do, and the true value we offer our customers and clients.’

Somehow, the work I did touched the essence — the very identity — of the clients I worked with. Exploring my own methodology gave me the permission and confidence to focus my life’s work on the specific challenge of differentiation and core messaging. To my knowledge, there are still but a handful of people in the world who specialize in this work.

Helping companies and individuals discover their authentic competitive advantage is no longer ‘how’ I create effective communications, it’s what I do – full stop.

Can you define your uniqueness to the point where you can turn your ‘how’ into your ‘what’?

The Fifth Layer: Deeper ‘Why’ Differentiation

Why do you do what you do?

Now, before you spout off the usual pablum and motherhood statements about wanting to help people, think carefully about the question. I am not asking why you decided to become a [insert your generic title here]. I am asking: why you are so drawn to the specific challenge you discovered in the ‘How’ Differentiation layer?

If you’re like most of the clients I work with, your ‘why’ can be traced back to either a deep pain you experienced in your personal life history, perhaps as a child. Or, it can be traced to a mistake or series of mistakes you made early on in your career.

The deepest layer of differentiation exposes the most vulnerable part of you. That’s what makes it authentic. That’s why it fuels your passion for what you do.

And because individuals create companies, instill values and culture, and set visions and missions, very often the ‘Why Differentiation’ is the link between the authentic competitive advantage of the organization and the people behind them.

Perhaps the challenge you are driven to solve today is a challenge you faced yourself. Perhaps the thing you help other people overcome is the lesson you learned – the hard way. Perhaps the lesson you help other people learn is the same lesson you continue to learn over and over again. Perhaps you are driven by the shame and hurt that was passed down to you by your parents.

So now, again, why do you do what you do?

In my case, I am profoundly influenced by the experiences of my parents during World War II.

Family Traits

With a degree in linguistics, my father had a facility with words and a gift for language. So when he joined the French Foreign Legion during the Second World War, he was put in charge of translating messages for the French, British and American troops — and sometimes delivering them in person under enemy fire. After the war, he became a professional translator, and worked his way up to become head of the translation department at McGill University.

My mother is a survivor of the Holocaust. Deported on March 7, 1944, she spent almost a year at the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp – the largest killing grounds of the Nazis. Surviving beatings, interrogations and the selections by the infamous Dr. Mengele, she was then forced on a three-day death march through the mountains in the bitter cold of January 1945.

From Wroclaw on the Polish-German border, she was transported to Ravensbruck and then to Neustadt. When the camp was liberated by the Russian army on May 3, 1945, she was taken for dead as she lay motionless on the ground, too weak to move.

Some people would be shattered by an experience like that; others may then be inspired to experience every breath as a gift.

The latter describes my mother.

If you met her today, you’d find someone in love with the world. She doesn’t need a reason — or even music — to dance around my back yard.

As an author, advertising copywriter and speaker, I always knew where I got my facility with words and my gift for language. But I never fully understood how and why I inspire audiences until I saw that my mother’s ability to survive is also my ability to survive — and her passion for life as much a part of me as it is hers.

So perhaps my ability to inspire from the platform was ingrained in me by events that occurred long before I was born – and maybe that’s the reason event planners call me when they are looking for a motivational speaker, even though the ‘M’ word doesn’t figure anywhere on my website.

Growing Up ‘Differentiated’

Now about my choice of topic: why am I so driven to help clients and audiences go beyond the marketing fluff to discover their true differentiation?

For that, the entire cultural history of where I grew up may be to ‘blame’.

A brief timeline of Montreal goes like this:

In the sixteenth century France claims the area now known as the Province of Quebec as her own. Being a Catholic nation, thousands of French Catholic citizens cross the Atlantic to populate the new world. In 1760, the war between France and Britain finally ends with Britain as the victor. It wasn’t a decisive victory, however, so France cedes the territory on condition that Britain allows the people to retain their language and religion. Britain agrees, and French Canada continues to flourish, growing from barely 70,000 people to over 7 million today.

That explains why the school system in Quebec is divided along language and religious lines. The Catholic school board is primarily French. The Protestant school board is English.

Though we lived in a Jewish neighborhood, my parents couldn’t afford to send me to the private Hebrew School. Their choice was either to send me to the French Catholic school run by nuns, or teach me to speak English so I could go to the Protestant school.

The kids who lived in the other half of our semi-detached home went to the Catholic school. My parents chose to send me to the English Protestant school.

It was bizarre — though undoubtedly less so than had the nuns got hold of me.

I grew up pledging allegiance to the Queen of England, reciting the Lord’s Prayer every morning, and on Jewish Holidays most of my friends didn’t have to go to classes – but we weren’t allowed to play in the schoolyard either, because it upset the two Protestant kids who were stuck inside.

So here I was, at the height of French Canadian nationalism and separatism. To the French Canadians I was the maudit anglais (literally, ‘accursed English’ – think ‘f-word’). To my English-speaking classmates, I was the French frog. And given the undercurrent of anti-semitism in Quebec (and elsewhere), I was constantly reminded that being Jewish meant being different.

Even among other Jewish kids, I was different. All my friends had grandparents who spoke with Eastern European accents like in the movies, but I was half French and half Persian! Everyone else had peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for lunch; I had roast beef sandwiches – rare.

Forty years later, I ‘discover’ I am an expert in authentic differentiation. This could be one of the few times I might agree with the aphorism: ‘there are no coincidences’.

Do you think I could have arrived at that discovery without having first dug through the higher levels and sifted through the dirt and debris? Probably not. That’s why you can’t jump to your own authentic differentiation directly.

Look up. Look Way Up!

Now that you’ve dug your way to the bottom layer, look up through the layers above you.

Can you redefine your what, who, where and when so that all the elements sit directly above your how and why? Throw away anything that doesn’t link directly to your core.

You no longer need to do it all – you can focus on the piece that you do better than anyone else in the world.

Whether you are the CEO of a major corporation, a salaried employee, or an independent professional like a financial advisor, consultant or coach… what makes you truly different is the basis of your self-confidence, your competitive advantage in your market, and ultimately, your success in life and business.

You are now standing on the foundation of your authentic differentiation. You are standing in the place where you have the most passion, the most power and the greatest opportunity to make the change you are driven to make.

Isn’t this what you want to be known for? Isn’t this your legacy to the future?