How Different Must “Different” Be?

By Paul Wiefels, managing director & co-founder of Chasm Group, LLC


They aren’t the best at what they do. They’re the only ones who do what they do.”

The legendary rock impresario, Bill Graham, reportedly said this about the Grateful Dead back in the day. It is still a point well-taken now. Being “different” can come in many forms, flavors, and guises. Such differences should underpin meaningful differentiation for a company, product, or service. Yet, this can get muddled or lost in B2B marketing, notably in tech. Why?

Because it’s really hard to do.

Consider the B2B service messages that show up in our email spam folders with depressing regularity. We get 5+ emails per day from firms claiming that they can “bring us more revenue,” or “introduce us to new customers,” through the use of cold calling, “targeted” emails (just like the ones they’re sending us), and so on. Yet, for us, these promises lack salience. For years, 90+% of our business has come through existing and previous clients hiring us again, or their referrals; and from reading our articles and books, or as a result of speaking engagements. Third-party efforts like these work for certain categories, and certain types of companies. But they’re not for us. What’s more, on closer examination I’ve yet to discern any meaningful differences between any of these firms. Why? Because, for us, they have none.

Digging deeper, the issue is not simply differentiation. It is meaningful differentiation based on a deep understanding of who the target customer really is, and who they’re not. This is not typically a binary decision, unlike many categories in B2C. It is often nuanced—not easily discerned without many questions asked and hypotheses posited, resulting in the discovery of the compelling reason to buy. It is the real, highest-order reason why someone would invest in your category and invest in you specifically.

That discovery now suggests why you’re relevant for consideration. And why you may not be. The benefit you wish to convey must meet this first hurdle. Your benefit claims must be concise, singular, compelling, and supported by credible evidence. As for your customer, this is obviously not evaluated in a vacuum, but rather in the context of relevant alternatives, including doing nothing.

Differentiating attributes—what makes you a preferred choice—must also be concise, singular, compelling, and supportable. Maximally relevant to the target customer and their environment. In tech, these often manifest as features of the product or technology. But in and of themselves, these can also obscure the benefits they deliver in human terms. The assumption is people will care “how it works.” For some, maybe. But do executive buyers nowadays really care? “Best products” or “best ways” (or similar) lose meaning when they’re not understood or, more notably, not relevant. There are myriad ways to differentiate meaningfully not related to feature/functionality. But they’re often overlooked because they sound “too simple.”

Now we arrive at the statement of value that should set you apart, make you the preferred choice. The power of a value proposition is inversely proportional to its scope. The most important defining feature is its single-mindedness—a credible, authentic, sought-after benefit that can be expressed in personal, human terms. They’re memorable, inspiring, and can be advocated for through word of mouth. Value propositions that are multi-faceted look complicated, belabored, too good to be true—and therefore worth ignoring.

Why do so many examples resemble the latter and not the former? Because creating meaningful difference is hard. But it’s worth it.