Why “Differentiate” is a Dirty Word


The message from the marketing gurus is clear – differentiate or die. We’re told that if we don’t get our very own Unique Selling Proposition then we’re either going to drop dead or live out our days as a wallflower. Not a pretty diagnosis either way.

Now that I’ve cheered you up, let’s consider why finding that “point of difference” is so difficult for many small business owners, and what steps we can take to point us in the right direction.

I’m inquisitive and like to investigate, so the question I asked myself was: why do so many businesses mirror each other? Here’s what I think:

Because we spend our whole lives being rewarded for being just like everyone else.

In other words, conformity is in. In fact, we’re spoon-fed it every day of our lives. From our school years right through to our professional and social lives, we are taught to “fit in”. So is it any wonder when Joe Average steps into the land of brand ownership that he just falls into line with the crowd? Why would he suddenly want to be different? When you really think about it, how uncomfortable would that feel? The answer is, very.

In my experience, the currency of conformity is Acceptance, by that very important crowd – the status quo. Individuals who rebel (those misfits who do things differently, and particularly those who think differently) are frequently punished; usually by being ostracized. Anyone know what I’m talking about?

But hey, look on the bright side – once upon a time they chopped people’s heads off for being a dissenter, so if you were a misfit and the only thing you copped was being ostracized then consider yourself lucky. In all seriousness, the fundamental thinking behind this mindset hasn’t changed in our sophisticated modern age – only the degrees of punishment have.

So we have ourselves a paradox. While our modern world of commerce clearly operates on a natural law of differentiation for survival, our social order still operates from an almost opposite set of principles. Just consider the use of the words in the two realms:

In the business world “differentiation” is divine. The word is used in a highly positive context. “Unique” is in.

Meanwhile, back in society, when someone is referred to as “different”, it has a negative connotation. As much as we hate to admit it, “Conformity” is in.

The Natural Effect of a Conformity Mindset

In his free e-book, Differentiate or Diminish: The Art and Necessity of Business Positioning, SBB contributor Kevin Levi tells us that, “many companies today fall into the trap of utilizing overused or meaningless words to describe what they do”. Warning that this doesn’t work, he offers a list of “trite” words to avoid.

So why do we naturally gravitate toward trite words? Because they’re familiar; they feel safe and comfortable.

It’s difficult for many brand owners to differentiate because unless they’re comfortable and experienced with being a misfit, or standing out from the crowd, it first requires a shift in their thinking pattern.

If any of this is ringing true for you, and you’re a bit stuck on how to go about “differentiating” yourself, here’s my tip:

First Things First

Get uncomfortable.

They say all change starts from within. For things to change, first I must change.

If you’re stumped about how to differentiate your brand, then perhaps start by taking a look at your own personal patterns. Are there any areas in your life where you’ve just blended with the crowd? Take an honest look. In what areas might you be living in Status Quo City? Sure, relocating to Individual Island may be difficult at first, but you’re bound to fall in love with your new outlook.

I believe that when you dig deep and find your own uniqueness, the road to differentiating your brand will be paved for you. All you have to do then is walk it. It may not be easy, but it is simple.

And let’s face it, if the marketing gurus are right (and we know they are), then it’s either get uncomfortable or get used to being a wallflower. No pain, no gain.


  1. Hi Dani,

    It’s pretty funny because i’ve long been one of the “misfits” and i have found that being different is really quite empowering in a lot of ways because it lets you define who you are and in the case of business it allows you to define your business and keep it unique and powerful!

    Excellent posting Dani as always!


  2. An interesting perspective on why differentiation is so difficult. Another reason is the gut insinct of small business owners to be all things to all people so that they can get all the business they can.

  3. Kevin Harrington says

    An interesting article. Thank you.

    Isn’t the point that companies need to root out valuable points of difference for their products or services or brands?

    If they don’t what is the focus for advertising and communications? The only tool could end up being price and we all know the dangers of discounting.

  4. Uniqueness yes. But go a step further. A company must communicate its particular core business and do consistently in substance and visual cues so that its audience believes in the company. This is uniqueness which is credibility based: “expertise” (core business) + “trustworthy” (beliveability) = credibility. An easy way to communicate unqueness is to adopt a credibility based logo design. The symbol content is always the company’s core business. Like the “key” symbol in the keymakers shop sign. The design of the “key” would capture the personality of the keymaker. If he has been around a while, the design might be “dated” looking. In contrast, the overall design motif for an electronics company logo will be contemporary communicating “trust” that the company is cutting-edge. All companies are different. Each has its own unique credibility trait attributes of “expertise” and “trustworthy” which a company must to communicate with consistency in its logo, then extend to its entire branding system. The company then achieves unique “Brand Credibility” over time. For more about credibility based logo design and branding please access http://www.powerlogos.com.

  5. Danielle says

    Hi Kevin,

    Thanks, I’m glad you found it interesting. The point I was making was that before a brand owner goes through the process of rooting out valuable points of difference for their products or services or brands, they may first need to become comfortable with the concept of differentiation.

    The way I see it, small business owners can go through the mechanics of this process, but if in their mindset they are not comfortable with standing out or standing “for” something, they are not going to be able to keep their brand promises every day. Because let’s face it, finding your USP isn’t a one-off activity. That’s just the beginning – you then have to deliver consistently on your promise.

    Furthermore, when the going gets tough it could be very tempting to slip back into “comfortable” territory.

    Very often we know what’s good for us, we know what we’re supposed to do. So when we KNOW and still don’t do it, it can usually be traced back to our current mindset.

    Anyway, I could waffle about this all day…. 🙂

  6. Danielle says

    Hey Luc,

    That’s awesome that you can see the power and the beauty in being a misfit. It pays off in the end doesn’t it! 🙂

    Having the courage to walk your own path isn’t always easy (bit of an understatement), but it sure is fulfilling.

    Stay unique,

  7. Danielle says

    Hi Jay,

    Thanks for your thoughts. Yeah, you’re absoultely right, although I’m not sure if it’s gut instinct or misguided perception that being all things to all people will keep the cash flowing.

    Actually, I think the whole USP concept is terrific, because once you nail it, it stands to reason that it will simplify your business – and that’s gotta be a good thing!

  8. Differientiation is a big word that really means “why should your customers give a hoot?”

    So often in businesses, you have to take a step back and consider what it is that you do that will make customers want to patronize your business.

    Let’s face it. In a hypercompetitive environment, it really is about being able to connect with your customer at such a level that they go absolutely crazy about what it is that you do.

    You want them to go so crazy about you that they will come back again…and again…and again…