How To Be Different (EXCERPT)

Excerpted with permission of the publisher John Wiley & Sons, Inc., from "Likeonomics: The Unexpected Truth Behind Earning Trust, Influencing Behavior, and Inspiring Action" by Rohit Bhargava (c) 2012 by Rohit Bhargava.

The Differentiation Ideal

The most obvious way to avoid becoming a mere clone of your competition is to truly do a better job of differentiating by actually being different. Professor Youngme Moon is one of the most popular teachers at Harvard Business School. In 2010 she published a brilliant book called "Different" on a very necessary question that goes to the heart of what we have been focusing on: how to be different.

In the book, she looks at brands who manage to do it and proposes a unique and important theory about why differentiation happens. The brands like IKEA or Google that she uses as great examples of 52 differentiators have the ability to be, as she calls it, “lopsided.” Instead of trying to be all things to all people, they find a way to double down on the things that they are great at and remain unapologetic about the things that they don’t do.

The most powerful thing about reading "Different" is that it offers its own lopsided academic view of the rationale for focusing on being different. Professor Moon doesn’t apologize for her idealism either. Yet throughout the book it is clear that a very small few brands are able to meet this ideal. It doesn’t mean that we all shouldn’t try for truly being different, but I would argue that there is a bigger challenge in spending all of your time and effort on differentiation of a product or business model or idea.

Differentiation is hard to accomplish, and even harder to maintain. In a world where almost any product or idea can be copied relatively quickly, the only competitive edge that lasts is what you can build based on relationships.

The flipside of this point is that the vast majority of brands will fall short on creating true differentiation – yet they can still find success. The reason for this is clear if you look at the reality of how we buy products, as well as how we choose which people to believe or follow.

The fact is, we don’t always need (or get) something that is completely unique. In fact, if there ever was a force that could counteract this need to be different in order to stand out, it would be the strength of a personal connection.

Here’s a personal example. The Colombian coffee that I buy from my local farmer’s market really doesn’t taste that different from the coffee I could buy at my local grocery store. The package size is the same, and it is actually more work for me to wait until Saturday and then drive to the farmer’s market to buy the coffee. Yet every weekend I do exactly that. Why? Because I have a personal connection with Mimi, the lady who sells it.

Mimi has family in Colombia who help her source and import the coffee. She knows the names of my kids. She always has a coffee waiting for me at the stall along with the bag of beans that I buy – and all of that makes the extra effort and expense worth it.

Having a game changing product or innovation will always matter. As long as no one else is selling the iPad, or the Walkman, or vitamin‐enriched water, or ready‐to‐assemble furniture – you have a competitive advantage. If no one else knows how to translate documents from Swahili into Swedish, you can probably charge any consulting fee you want for those services if they are needed.

The bottom line is, the most successful organizations and people differentiate based on themselves and an ideal … not based only on what they sell.

Rohit Bhargava is the author of "LIKEONOMICS: The Unexpected Truth Behind Earning Trust, Influencing Behavior, and Inspiring Action" and senior vice president at Ogilvy, where he is a founding member of Ogilvy 360 Digital Influence team. A professor of global marketing at Georgetown University, he is also the award-winning author of the previous book "Personality Not Included". Follow Rohit on twitter @rohitbhargava and read his personal blog.