B2B Differentiation-three things you need to know

Sea of Sameness shutterstock_212221846

So you reckon you stand out in your market sector? You are the biggest, the best, the most customer centric. The competition follow your lead, they languish in your wake, they simply aren’t as good as you.

Ever heard of differentiation? Well Hey!…here I am*…and it’s probably not what you are expecting. The fact is a huge number of B2B brands literally swim in a sea of sameness. This insight is dramatically brought home in our white paper on brand differentiation in the Global Telecoms Sector which you can download here.

Swimming in a Sea of Sameness

Even if you don’t operate in Telecoms the lessons from our research are worth looking at. It’s clear that from the buyers perspective many B2B brands simply look the same.

The classic approach to B2B differentiation

Look across any business and three things are commonly used to differentiate. Price, Product, People. These are the three P’s of B2B difference. The only problem with this approach is that it generates a massive ‘so what?’ Buyers expect your prices to be competitive, your product to provide a good solution and your people to be experienced, innovative and attentive. There is absolutely nothing that makes a difference here at all.

So What’s Going On?

Alot of B2B marketing fails to take account of the psychology of differentiation. Unless you understand these things then standing out in the mind of the buyer isn’t going to happen. To differentiate your b2b brand from your competitors you need to think about three things. These b2b brand differentiation essentials will have a massive impact on your sales and marketing effectiveness.

1. Noticing Difference

Differentiation is about ‘being separate’. It is also about how we notice something for being different in the mass of information that we receive on a daily basis. The scientist Gregory Bateson in his book Steps to an Ecology of Mind pointed out that we are mentally geared up to pay attention to ‘differences that make a difference’. This he describes as receiving a ‘meaningful signal’ from the samey information that surrounds us. Now this is central to marketing guru Ted Levitt’s idea of differentiation and something that has been lost in the wash in the decades since he published his seminal article ‘Marketing Success Through The Differentiation of Anything’. The key word in Levitt’s article is ‘meaningful’ and its been totally forgotten. Levitt urged the pursuit of ‘meaningful differentiation’ not just differentiation for differentiation’s sake. So ask yourself  do you really know ‘what  the buyer finds meaningful’.

2. Brain Short Cuts

Humans need quick and easy rules about how to operate in the world without having to re-learn responses to every situation we are faced with. Imagine having to start from scratch and learn the right the thing to do when you wanted to cross the road. Life would become unmanageable. Cognitive psychologists call the rules we use ‘heuristics’. These are brain short cuts that allow us deal with everyday situations. Psychologists Tversky and Kahneman classified several of these ‘rules of thumb’ as they are called. One type in particular is important for CEO’s, CMO’s and sales and marketing professionals and it involves self deception. In other words the way we fool ourselves into believing something that isn’t true. Technically called a ‘judgment heuristic’ and related to the ‘fundamental attribution error’ it is common for many marketers to assume that they are unique and different compared to their competitors. Just take a look at the ‘About Us/Why Us’ pages of your three nearest competitors and judge for yourself how different you really are!

3. Being Relevant

Relevance is yet another marketing buzzword. So buzzy that its lost its meaning. In social psychology and communications theory it is crucially important. Relevance is what B2B buyers  use to ‘select’ one supplier from another. It is a faculty of buyers mind that is impossible for the supplier to control. Relevance is all about what the buyer sees as their ‘matter at hand’, the most pressing, top of mind issue or problem they or their organisation is facing. Unless you understand this and show to the buyer you understand this then all you are is another grey fish swimming in the sea of sameness.

What do you think?

Do you think B2B marketers need to worry about differentiation? Does the cream always rise to the top anyway and discerning buyers who know their supply network will always pick the best?


*paraphrased from Falling Down when Michael Douglas’ character Defens buys a Wammy Burger – ‘ever heard the phrase the customer is always right, well hey, here I am…the customer’




Revealing the root cause of Brand failure?


To be honest I was a left a bit baffled by a recent article in the AMA blog by Nigel Hollis the executive vice president and chief global analyst at New York-based global market research firm Millward Brown. 

It was written in that ‘revelatory’ style you sometimes get when someone shares some pearls of wisdom from years of practice and they want to promote a methodology for success. 

To be fair at the heart of the post there are some important points but they aren’t exactly revelations. 

Marketing thinkers for decades have said that competitive advantage is achieved when:

1. Particular solutions and the enduring brands they sit within satisfy customer needs and expectations and constantly stay relevant to what the customer wants.
2. Cutting your price implies there is no meaningful difference between your offer of value and your competitors.

Why was I baffled? 

Well one claim being made in Pricing Power: A brands most valued yet under valued asset seemed to confuse cause and effect. 

Brands decline for reasons other than losing market share we are told. Really?

Isn’t market share the indicator of something amiss rather than its cause? It’s a bit like saying people are dead because they have stopped breathing. Factually correct but not a very helpful explanation.

Then we are told (as the rabbit is pulled out of the hat) that losing market share isn’t really the cause of brand demise it’s lack of pricing power. 

Really? Isn’t a cheap price point just another indicator of the lack of inherent customer value in the offer rather than its cause? Price is an indicator of quality. Therefore isn’t it a lack of customer value that is the root cause of brand decline?

Then we are treated to the revelation of revelations. 

The post observes that in reality Brands fail because of the inaction of the people that create and manage them and or competitive action. You don’t say! You mean brands aren’t stand alone entities that were created without the involvement of human mind and action? Shock! 

This is actually where I totally agree with Nigel. Competitive advantage is generated from the resources, competences and capabilities of the firm not your position in the market . Your market position is an outcome of your commercial imagination.

Brands lose market share simply when some marketeers make duff decisions and become complacent. They mis-manage solutions and brands that eventually drift into customer irrelevance.

Brands don’t decline because of the mystical intervention of ‘loss of market share’ or a pricing goof. These are symptoms of poor marketing management and a lack of market orientation.

The positive customer attitude measures that Nigel refers to as key to his suite of factors for ensuring Brand success surely isn’t rocket science either it simply means you are selling something the customer finds desirable and your customers agree.
As for Nigel telling us that what really matters is delivery of ‘meaningful difference’ isn’t this an unattributed repeat of what Ted Levitt was saying back in 1980s? Why has anything changed? 

The danger really lurks when brands try to, as Nigel suggests, ‘boost perceptions of positive differentiation’. Do this without grounding the differentation in things that are really matter to the customer and all you do is slap lipstick on a pig and it never works long term if at all (cf Simon Kelly – Sheffield Business School).

I’m not sure there is much mystery in any of this.

What do Adidas mean by relentless and aggressive story telling?

The Adidas story in Marketing Week caught my eye this morning and of course that was partly the intention.

It also got me thinking more deeply about the article (my elaboration likelihood was huge), I was puzzled at the use of language.

It’s well known that stories are powerful ways of communicating. Think Nordic sagas, religious parables and so on. The world of management refers to them as crucial ways to engage audiences and paint vivid visions. Great leaders tell good stories. 

What however is a ‘relentless and aggressive’ story? What is inferred (cf Grice, Sperber and Wilson, Clark) by this choice of words? what does such language symbolise about the speaker?

If stories are meant to engage why on earth would you want to communicate in a relentless and aggressive way? Isn’t this the style of communication that is typical of despots and dictators rather than someone proposing the value of their products for customers to review and select? Is this an example of old fashioned marketing monologic rather dialogic communication (cf Ballantyne and Varey)? 

What does this language indicate about the mind set of the speaker and the social norms of the business world they inhabit? Is aggression and relentlessness lauded as a way of behaving in that business and in that market sector?

Research I recently conducted on sales interactions revealed that the customers sense of value is associated with the respect and politeness that is given by the seller to the buyer. Relentlessness (a mistaken word for tenacity perhaps?) is viewed by customers as hectoring and intrusive, aggressiveness is deemed to be impolite and immature. This way of communicating is the sign of the junior and the inexperienced rather than the mature and wise.

What is the point of describing your work as relentless and aggressive? I can only presume that is how the buyer of advertising services offered by the pitching ad agency judges their suppliers? In other words the buyer believes ‘relentlessness and aggression’ are good attributes thus the ad agenciy’s pitch is based on fitting in with an assumed way of behaving that is deemed the right way to go about business. The language of of relentless aggression signifies the cutting edge of competitive attitude, it is militaristic in tone and indicative of a macho managerialist world view. 

But…ironically isn’t it so anti-marketing ? A marketing campaign that isn’t marketing? Spooky! 

Sure take your competitive situation seriously, sure fight it out to the best of your ability, sure keep at it when the going gets tough. 

It may even be the case that a target customer for Adidas is an aspiring athlete who is deemed to be successful by relentlessness and aggression or sees themselves as relentless and aggressive. Smudging customer insight about attitudes and behaviours into a way of talking to your customer is probably a mistake however.

Talk of relentlessness and aggression in this way seems all about how YOU want to communicate with customer not communicating on issues that matter to them. Why assume a relentless and aggressive approach to story telling is an appropriate way to engage with customers and invite them to hand over money to buy your brand and its products? 

Stop trying to give people the impression how hard and driven you are and start thinking about conveying the value of your products to your customers would be my suggestion. 

Do you push your customers around?

An interesting article in Marketing Week on the working relationship between sales and marketing functions got me thinking.

Diageo seek greater sales and marketing unity.

Set in the context of retail marketing the article says the two functions at a major retail supplier are going to work together to push customers to a sale.

I found this use of language interesting (not withstanding the organisational problem of marketing and sales not working together)

What does ‘push’ infer? Sounds to me like customers are seen as resources to be exploited? Isn’t this the ‘sales’ led mentality that is criticised in conventional marketing management theory.

Don’t get me wrong, of course companies need sales and profit, and yes they are under pressure to compete, and for sure customers need compelling reasons to buy.

To be ‘pushed’ to a sale? What is this saying about how this retailer sees ‘you’ the customer? Are you an unthinking dupe who has to be told what to do? Are you incapable of making an informed choice between offers of value?

If the value proposition was any good wouldn’t you see it’s relevance to your needs and your life?

I feel for the marketing function here. Seems probable they are the junior partner and not making their advertising pushy enough for the sales team?

Goose Fair 2012 Customer Experience Without The Relationship?

The first week of October sees the arrival of the oldest traveling fair in the world to Nottingham. The Goose Fair is probably one of the amusement and entertainment industry’s biggest brands and yet it has formed over the years without the need for centralised brand management and the policing of style guides.

It is a confederacy of family sub-brands that coalesce at a particular time and a particular place to become a brand experience that thousands of people look forward to every year. Come Sunday the tangible evidence of the brand will dissolve as the showmen’s families and their rides go to the next place.

The relationship the visitors have with Goose Fair is interesting. The brand of Goose Fair lives on in the memories and imagination long after the fair has gone and long before is arrives again the following year.

No loyalty cards, no discounts no gimmicks, no effort devoted to forming lasting personal relationships between customer and ride owner. The only relationship that is formed is with the brand experience. A full sensory experience of sights sounds, smells and excitement that the showmen know works time and time again.

So does Goose Fair invite us to think differently about the way brands are portrayed in management text books? Would a style obsessed creative director enforce changes to the ‘look’ of the ride and kiosk artwork, would a zealous brand manager seek to homogenise the offer so that it fits with an over arching corporate ideal? And if they did then what?

The brand of Goose Fair has survived because of its loose configuration and a the delivery of very clear idea. Excitement and Fun. That if you like is the mission and the individual show people choose how to address that mission the way they feel is best. Maybe corporate entities could learn something from a brand that has survived for hundreds of years?

In the final analysis Goose Fair delivers. It doesn’t make vacuous promises about making you happy, fulfilling your dreams, promising you magic. Every year simply turns up and does it. People remember it and that’s why they keep coming back, and telling their friends and family.

Do You Think Outside The Box?

If you have ever played buzzword bingo then I’m sure you will be very familiar with the now cliched term ‘think outside the box’.

Like lots of management ideas the phrase points to an important insight about the way we can all become locked into routine patterns of thinking.  Gareth Morgan calls these our psychic prisons, Social Theorist Anthony Giddens  alerts us to operating within the limits of our knowledgabilty, and Chris Argyis  describes the distinction between single loop and double loop problem solving, in which the solutions to our problems frequently lie outside of the system where they occur.

Thinking, whether inside or outside the box is often belittled by practicing managers. Often they will say they can be doing something more useful than thinking. I find that rather strange because every action is based on an idea (however implicit)

Developing your thinking is the primary purpose of all higher education business studies programmes. This is not always made explicit. Often Business School prospectii simply mention what courses are (their features) rather than explain what the courses do for the student (their benefits)

Many people have no idea that purpose of business studies degrees has been carefully thought through by The Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (who? I here you say) and The Association of Business Schools.

By studying for a business degree you are embarking on course of personal development that will guide you in four key areas:

i – reflective mindset – recognise assumptions and learn from experience

ii – change master – recognise and manage ambiguity, competing demands, and facilitate change

iii – effective manager – recognise and choose best courses of action amongst alternatives

iv- analytical thinker – deeply understand the nature of business phenomena

Combined,  these four areas together with the experience of study itself will help anyone develop a capability for thinking outside the box. So whatever business degree you choose whether that’s a bachelor’s degree, a specialist MA or Msc or a generalist MBA thinking outside the box comes as standard.

Is Cold Calling A Marketing Technique?

The BBC have reported on a Which Magazine survey says that most of us think that Cold Callers Should Be Banned. Ceri Stanaway Which Magazine Telecoms expert says “At best a nuisance and at worst an intimidating intrusion into our lives”. So doesn’t this beg a question. Is Cold Calling a Marketing technique? The answer of course depends on what you mean by ‘marketing’.

If marketing is about understanding and responding to the needs of customers then it seems not. Cold Calling is about the need of the selling organisation to make sales regardless of what the customer wants. No matter how Cold Calling is rationalised by the people who do it Cold Calling isn’t about informing the customer of offers they wouldn’t have found out about, it isn’t about providing a better service, its about wringing every last penny out of the customer in a high pressure win/lose tussle.

The intrusive nature of early evening cold phone calls is deliberate and contrived. It gets people at a time when their psychological defenses are low after a long day. It gets past our psychological defenses because we are ‘at home’ and not in an alert buying mode. And from personal experience with my father companies don’t seem to care that they are trying to brow beat elderly people with complex and irrelevant service offers.

Cold Calling is not a marketing technique because it doesn’t care about the customer. To protect yourself why not use the Telephone Preference Service.

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