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The Case for Sustainable Differentiation

Traveling is hard. Being away from home, eating out, sleeping in an unfamiliar bed—not to mention the nightmares of airports and airlines—make even the most hardened road warrior appreciate small niceties.

It was one of those niceties that brightened my life one day back in 2003. I was attending a conference at a resort in Palm Springs, and I rolled out of bed before dawn to get to an early seminar. I shuffled my sleepy feet into the bathroom and turned on the water. Stepping into the shower, I tugged on the curtain. To my surprise (and delight), there was no vacuum of air sucking in the unruly vinyl and trapping me against the wall. In fact, the reason I noticed the curtain at all was that it was standing completely still.

Wondering what this was all about, I looked up and saw what struck me as one of the most wonderful inventions of all time: a curved shower-curtain rod. What a brilliant concept, I thought. How simple. How obvious. How come nobody ever thought of this before? I was happy. And grateful, not only to the inspired inventor who came up with the concept, but also to the hotel that was thoughtful enough to install it.

Now here's the bad news. I don't remember where I was staying. This terrific invention, this fabulous innovation, this morning-making milestone that could have made the difference next time I booked a room, didn't have a lasting impact. Other hotels immediately started adopting the feature and I lost track of who was first. The curved shower-curtain rod was great news for the frequent traveler but provided no lasting differentiation for any one brand. My kids will have no memory of life without it.

That's the problem with product and service improvements. Curved rods, rearview cameras, artificial sweeteners, faster processors—all are nice, but none offer sustainable differentiation. Sure, they can offer tactical advantages for a period of time, but like any successful innovations they will be duplicated. Even if they're patented, they'll likely be ripped off by crafty imitations.

Right-Brain Connections

So what's a brand to do? How can it achieve differentiation that is real, meaningful, and sustainable? The answer lies not in pursuing left-brain benefits, but in fostering right-brain connections. Successful differentiation takes place not only in the minds of your customers, but in their hearts.

That's how Doubletree has made its brand stand out in the hotel industry. For more than 20 years, Doubletree has been giving away its trademark chocolate-chip cookies—more than 200 million to date. Like any hotel chain, Doubletree focuses on many different ways of making its guests comfortable, but more than 10 million times each year its customers sink their teeth into warm, moist, signature cookies. Sure, most hotels will offer some sort of sweet snack, but nothing like Doubletree's. Ask the average business traveler what differentiates most hotels and you'll get a host of random answers. Ask them what differentiates Doubletree and you'll get one answer—usually accompanied by a smile.

Or consider Mini Cooper (BMW:GR). How did this funny-looking upstart break out in the über-competitive automotive market, especially with its tiny (by comparison) marketing budget? Sure, the car has some impressive features, but features alone don't differentiate. The marketers behind Mini smartly realized that the key was to find an emotional nook for the brand—and to occupy that nook with every marketing dollar.

Mini's strategy reflects an understanding that when it comes to brand identity, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Broadly speaking, there are two elements to differentiation: rational and emotional. Brands that exist in categories with the most parity (cars, soft drinks, cosmetics, fashion) understand that since their rational benefits are so close to what competitors offer, emotional differentiation is truly the key. That's how Coke (KO) and Pepsi (PEP) justify hiring seven-figure celebrity spokespeople, hoping the emotional connection consumers have with the stars rubs off on their products.

That's not to say your brand should hire a celebrity spokesperson (most, in fact, should not—see "The Trouble with Celebrity Endorsements"). There are many ways to create an emotional connection without resorting to the danger of tying your brand to, oh, say, the greatest golfer of our time. But that doesn't mean that creating an emotional connection is easy.

The Rationale of Likability

One obstacle you may have to deal with is left-brain types within your organization who simply don't understand the realities of consumer behavior. They think a brand's appeal can be boiled down to formulas and spreadsheets—often making their arguments wearing designer clothes and sipping bottled water, oblivious to the irony.

People buy products and services for a whole host of reasons—some of them rational, some emotional. In well-established categories where a great deal of rational explanation is unnecessary, likability becomes all the more important. To the extent that your emotional differentiation rewards people (the smell of a freshly baked cookie, the sound of a finely tuned engine), it will build affection in their minds. And that affection will pay off in increased trial and brand loyalty. True, this takes time, but the personality your brand develops will be yours alone. That's the meaning of sustainable differentiation.

It's not easy. Industries of all stripes can get so inbred that it's difficult for any one player to break out. Too often, brands focus on what others in their category are doing and end up advertising to each other as they fight over the same mental turf. That's why innovation usually comes from outsiders.

If a competitor of yours has carved out a sustainable niche, don't attack its strength. Study how it was done, recognize the underlying principles, and apply those principles to your unique set of circumstances. Don't try to mimic the Mini or take a bite out of Doubletree; find your own emotional corner of the world and own it. The deeper you go with it, the more differentiated—and sustainable—your brand will be.

McKee is president of McKee Wallwork & Company and author of Power Branding and When Growth Stalls. Find him on Twitter and LinkedIn.

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