As customers, we are surrounded by choice. In every sector, in every geography, there are thousands of options clamouring for our budget — options that span products, services and ‘solutions’ of every kind.
Just look at the Marketing Technology Landscape graphic to see this writ large.
Thing is, most B2B buyers never consider all the options. Why would they? Life’s too short.
The idea that they’ll fire up the Google machine and carefully consider all the alternatives is a myth. As is the thought that once they have their shortlist, they’ll go merrily skipping across social media to find out what everyone is saying about every option on the table.
Not going to happen.
Instead, they’ll work on some pretty basic gut-feel…
Have I heard of these guys?
Do I have a good impression of them?
Has anyone I know used them? (And do I trust their opinion?)
Is there anything that makes them better than the competition?
Am I going to lose my job if I make the wrong decision?
These rules of thumb (heuristics if you want to get fancy) are how we make decisions in almost every sphere of our lives. B2B purchases are no different.
Yet too many B2B companies still operate as if every customer was a 100% rational, cost-benefit weighing psychopath who will see the self-evident benefit of selecting their product based on the 200 new features added since the last release.
But differentiation is hard. It means asking a bunch of tough questions while turning up the bullshit detector to 11. So it’s easier to focus on tactics instead (Look, you can engage with us on Instagram!).
Fortunately, the motivation for working hard at differentiation is pretty clear. If you don’t, you’ll fail as a business.
Harsh? Ok, if you’re lucky, you’ll simply underperform your competitors and have to spend a whole heap of cash to make up for your meh. Better?
So what does it take to get to a point where you have a clear picture of what makes your brand different (and why anyone should care)? Well, start with the following 10 questions.
Yes, start with the real basics. Remember, this is not an excuse to go off on one about how you’re a highly innovative time-as-a-service provider resetting the global paradigm of an hours-based economy when what you really sell is a cloud-based diary.
The keep it simple stupid rule applies here. When you boil it all down, what do you actually do for customers?
We get this in our workshops when we hear things along the lines of: We’re re-engineering cloud-based security for a mobile age. Well, I’m really happy for you. Now, what do you do for customers? Because at the end of the day, they are the ones that really matter.
I know, I’m killing you with the complexity of these questions. But it’s surprising how re-examining the market you play in can open up new opportunities (or alert you to new competitive threats).
Again, customer-focus is key. When it comes down to it, you’re in a race to prove value. So you may think of yourself as in the financial services software market but what if you’re really in the market of making your customers more agile or more resistant to uncertainty or more cost-efficient?
That can begin to differentiate you from competitors opening up new possibilities for telling a more compelling story.
Again, simple enough. But again, be careful of bland talk of solutions, it’s a meaningless term.
Let’s say you’re in the CRM market. You could easily (and accurately) say you sell a suite or solution or platform. But so does everyone else. Unless you’re Salesforce, that’s not going to cut it.
But diving into the product, you might determine that among the 1001 things it can do, it is better than most at mining into a contact’s history and delivering interesting insight to a salesperson.
So while you do sell a CRM system, the value you sell is a CRM system that helps salespeople unlock profitable hidden connections. Now we’re getting somewhere.
Now, I can imagine you coming back with a “But you just made that up, our product doesn’t have that kind of distinctive benefit.”
Well, a couple of things…
It probably has more distinctiveness than you realise, it’s just a matter of digging deep enough and resisting the lure of the bland me-too features that everyone talks about.
Or, if it really has no inherent differences at a product level, create differentiation through how you do business.
If it’s worse than that, quit and get a job with a more interesting business. Seriously, what are you doing wasting your time there?
Too many businesses get stuck implementing tactical activity without focusing sufficient time and effort on the bigger picture.
The first thing is to be clear about what we will see when we succeed in creating a powerful, differentiated brand.
What will happen in the market? In the business? In the minds of our customers and prospects?
How will we measure this success? What will we see in pure revenue terms? When?
Once we have a clear picture of success, we can judge all activity on how likely it is to get us closer to our end goals and prioritise what we do accordingly.
So, who buys from us? Who do we need to influence?
In a B2B sale, this can be complex. While there has been a tendency to focus on the C-suite in recent years, the reality is that in many sales (even those deemed ‘strategic’ in nature) the C-suite is not a driving force. They may approve the purchase, but no more than that.
We can often split buyers by type: decision makers (who can say yes or no), economic buyers (the money), influencers (with specialist knowledge or a vested interest) and end users.
We can go a step further and also consider anyone who may wish to sabotage the sale for their own reasons (eg, it’s a threat to their role/power base).
From here, we need to look at what each is buying. Each will have their own agenda and priorities.
So while we may need to sell efficiency to the economic buyer, we may need to think ease of use for the end user.
As mentioned above, we’re in competition to demonstrate value to customers. This is the value as they see it (not what we may wish them to value).
There are heaps of ways to express a value proposition. We tend to use a version of Geoffrey Moore’s from Crossing the Chasm:
For <TARGET MARKET> who want to <KEY CUSTOMER OBJECTIVE>, we are <CORE DESCRIPTION> that enables customers to <KEY CUSTOMER VALUE>.
So, for our own business, we’d end up with:
For ambitious B2B marketers who want to drive qualified leads and accelerate the sales pipeline, Considered is a content-led demand generation agency that enables them to deliver greater results, faster.
Importantly, this is not copy that will appear anywhere, it is simply designed to help you clarify the value you offer customers.
Your customers don’t particularly care about your business, they care about theirs.
For your product or service to get onto their radar, it needs to have a pretty straight-line impact on something that matters to them.
So this could be things like:
Helping them get to market faster
Removing cost from their supply chain operations
Accelerating data performance across a wide area network
Securing their most important asses against cyber threats
Whatever it is, it needs to be important and relatively urgent for the customer to fix. Ending up with three or so is good.
No business operates in a vacuum. There is always competition. Even if you’re first to market, there’s likely to be another way for customers to solve the same problems you do.
While you shouldn’t be defined by your competitors, you should have an in-depth understanding of where they fit into your customers’ thinking.
Are they the safe choice? Are they the ones that everyone loves to hate? Are they the rule-breakers?
Try reverse engineering a value proposition on to each major competitor. Then reduce it to a simple sentence/claim. Now reduce it to a word that best sums it up.
This will show you the broad territories each is trying to dominate.
You can then decide whether you can deposition them out of that territory or find a more differentiated area to compete within (we generally recommend the latter).
So we now have a clearer picture of the competitors, how do we stack up?
Chances are, you won’t be better in every way but you need to be better in some of the key ways that count for customers (you see the theme here?).
You need to be able to carve out some clear blue water that will give you scope to tell more engaging, more profitable stories. Stories that will make you relevant and memorable.
If you’re already pretty dominant in your market, incremental improvements may be enough. If, however, you are up against a competitor with major market presence, the differences will need to be more significant and more valuable to offset the gravity of their brand.
If only we could simply set out a differentiated position and get on with it. Life would be a lot easier. But, back in the real world, there will always be obstacles to progress and success.
Being clear about what these are offers a clear route to ensuring they do not become insurmountable barriers.
These may be external, such as a negative perception of a previous product or a specific dynamic in the market.
They could be internal, such as misalignment between departments.
Some will be complete blockers that need to be overcome before anything else can happen. Others will be points of friction that slow progress.
Again, once we’re clear on what we need to overcome, we can make active plans to deal with it.
The 10 questions above are simply the beginning of a process. They represent about half of what we cover in our workshops. Importantly, they are more focused on delivering input for our thinking. The next critical step is to turn them into output that means something to customers and which supports the objectives of the wider business. That’s where the real magic lies.
Now, of course you’d expect us to say this, but if you’re trying to differentiate your brand, you should get a third party involved to help.
The reality is, in any positioning exercise you will struggle to see outside the walls of your own business. You will have a tendency to believe your own hype. You’ll be hamstrung by your history.
A third party will ask the questions you may not. They will challenge you to think more broadly. They’ll put themselves in the position of the customer and call bullshit when needed.
And that, is invaluable.
Want to talk about your positioning? Drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jason Ball is the founder and managing director at Considered. With a multi-decade career in B2B marketing, he’s worked with world-leading brands such as Adobe, Google, EY and Cisco together with niche specialists in technology, manufacturing and professional services.