Create Competitive Differentiators – Not Marketing Cliches

Differentiators are what set you apart from competition, but that’s not all that’s required to make them effective. Differentiators need to be different than what the competition is saying – not just different than what they’re doing. And they need to be about what the client gets that he’s not already expecting, not about what you are, think, feel, or believe, and not something he expects anyway. Sometimes it’s about the writing, and sometimes the substance. To be truly effective, look at both.

Undifferentiated clichés sound like what everyone else is saying.

Example: “I truly care about my clients.” Ask a group of your competitors to raise their hands if they don’t care about their clients. Remember, it’s not what’s true, it’s what they’re saying is true that is either undifferentiated or differentiated. Same thing with “I put customers first.” The question isn’t “who doesn’t?” but “who doesn’t claim to?” Everyone claims to. Differentiators have to be different – they’re closer to being unique in your market than similar to your competitors. If most of your competitors would say “we do that too”, it’s not a differentiator.

Undifferentiated clichés promise clients what they already expect.

Example: “I don’t push clients to buy things they don’t need. I sell them what they actually need.” That’s great, except that your clients already expect you to sell them what they need, not push them into something they don’t. This doesn’t add value. Sure, your competitors might be doing the opposite, but now you’re only saying that you do the minimum expected. That’s your claim to fame over your competitors? You do the minimum? If it doesn’t go beyond the minimum expectation, it’s not a differentiator. In a rare twist, I saw a restaurant the other night with a reverse-differentiator differentiator; their sign said “no public bathroom” and, strangely, the place was packed. Clever, but don’t eat the curry.

Undifferentiated clichés are about you, what you have, and what you think.

Example: “I have access to multiple product lines or options I can sell you”. Don’t a lot of your competitors have similar access? If not, take it out of the context of what you have and make it clearer exactly what the client gets that they can’t also get from what your competition has access to. Same thing with “I have 25 years of experience.” Sounds likes you’re applying for your own job. So all someone needs is 26 years of experience to be a better choice? That’s playing the wrong game. Same thing with “I’m state certified.” Really? That’s it? I think I can get someone better who isn’t certified, if that’s really it. If it isn’t about the client’s experience or what their life is like when you get through with them, it’s not a differentiator.

Undifferentiated clichés are fluffy, vague, and non-specific – not tangible and concrete.

Example: “My valuable expertise ensures clients are fully satisfied.” This pretty much fails on all counts. It’s sounds like what everyone else is saying, sounds like what they expect to get anyway and, while it seems to be about the client, it’s really about you. Sure, maybe they do get “satisfaction” but what satisfaction looks like is far more concrete and specific. What specific form of satisfying the client does the client get by working with you that they don’t already think they’ll get and aren’t hearing that they’ll get from someone else? And how does this mystical expertise ensure they get it – exactly – specifically? If it’s not a tangible, specific thing that someone gets, it’s not a differentiator.

Good differentiators push the bar in some category of opportunity with clients.

  • Customer service: Be as specific and tangible as possible. Example: With American Express, if you try to return an item within 90 days, and the merchant won’t take it back, Amex can provide a refund. Differentiated customer service isn’t a generality or a warm, fuzzy feeling; it’s specific like that. Most companies stand by their own stuff, but Amex redefines that commonality, absorbing and including things that aren’t actually their responsibility. That stands out when we hear it, because it impacts us directly and exceeds our expectations.
  • Best experience: Explore clients’ wish lists for your industry. Example: Tired of tiny seats, emerald-diamond-sapphire levels, and grumpy flight attendants? On Southwest Airlines, you spread out, sit where you like, and have fun. Where can you push up the bar for client experiences in your industry? Where can you up the game for everyone? You may not always love Southwest’s air bus model, but it certainly *will* be different than your experience on United, in very particular ways.
  • Lowest prices: There’s a pitfall in racing to the bottom. You become the Walmart of your industry, pretty much pricing *yourself* out of business. Smart differentiators don’t drop price, they raise value. That value can address the money issue, if you like, by changing how the client pays. Example: Zappos pays shipping both ways – on purchases and returns, and both of those happen crazy fast – like 4 or 5 days fast. Instead of offering discounts, look for the pain points you can make go away, whether or not they have anything to do with price.
  • Stand for something: It’s not enough to say you care about people or the community – prove it. What do you give away, give back, or actually *do* to bring about change? Patagonia coughs up 1% of it’s sales for environmental causes, traces its clothing materials right to the source, to ensure geese used for down jackets aren’t force fed or live plucked and factories have ethical work conditions, and then makes the information transparent to you through disclosures. It’s your world, after all, and you care about it. Don’t say you care until you intend to prove it.
  • Best selection: Sometimes clients want more options, but sometimes they want more *curated* options. More options can be the superstore model, with 77 brands of shampoo to choose from, and 86 kinds of cookies. Great, but I only want what I want. It’s easy to get lost in Macy’s in New York’s Herald Square, but a small business can compete with that bloat by having a *better*, more interesting selection, and communicating how this will ensure a better fit for me. Lens Crafters may have a lot of frames, but Warby Parker puts together choices that are always stylish and affordable. I know with Lens Crafters, I’ll be rummaging for something that’s a fit, but with Warby Parker, I’m going to quickly find something cool that I just *have* to have, because someone carefully narrowed the field.

Give your market differentiators the Orson Scott Card test.

Orson Scott Card is the author of the series of books made famous by Enders Game. OSC counsels would-be authors to have their audiences flag 3 areas the writing leaves them wanting. He dubs these:

  1. Uh huh. (I don’t truly believe what you’re saying.)
  2. So what? (I’m bored, and you’re putting me to sleep.)
  3. Oh yeah? (Where’s the proof? Give me specific, tangible evidence.)

We apply this to your marketing content as well, and especially your market differentiators. Where are they unsubstantiated by specifics? Where are they tedious, empty, and vague? Where do they sound iffy and hard to actually deliver on? When you say “this is what sets me apart from my competition”, have your audience flag your remarks for these 3 criteria. That way you can identify and revisit areas where your differentiators feel inauthentic and uncompetitive.

Poll, mine, and brainstorm for differentiated opportunities.

You can create better differentiators by systematically asking open ended questions of your target audience. “If you could have anything you want out of a service like mine – anything – the sky is the limit – what would it be?” Ask your staff the same thing. Sure, you’ll get some crazy things. Good. Never say “we can’t do that” or “that wouldn’t work”. Brainstorming isn’t judging; quarantine the process of analyzing ideas from the adventure of gathering ideas. Mine the minds of your colleagues, associates, contractors, and staff for ideas and let the idea machine run wild because, if you do, you’ll find things in the *in between* of that process that you wouldn’t if you intersperse your listening with evaluation. Save the critical apparatus for well after the listening is done, and work on it with your most trusted strategists and advisors.

Structure your business around competitive differentiators.

Consider making or welcoming a change in your business processes! Sometimes differentiators don’t yet exist and have to be created. This happens every time you innovate a new process, a new way of doing things that translates directly into something clients want that they’re not getting or even hearing about from your competition. Be bold enough to actually build and evolve your business around the goal of differentiation. Once you’re doing that, don’t stop – let the process run continually, because your market is evolving, business cycles are coming at you faster than ever and with a greater range of extremes, and your business needs to remain evolutionary as well. Static businesses that don’t invent new ways to add value end up in decline, and faster now than they once did.

For help thinking through this process, creating competitive differentiators, or other aspects of your digital strategy, marketing strategy, and content strategy, contact Daniel at MadPipe.

Daniel DiGriz

Daniel DiGriz is a corporate storyteller and Digital Ecologist® at MadPipe, which provides creative direction, marketing leadership, and campaign direction for firms that want a stronger connection with their audience. A Digital Ecologist® applies strategic principles from both natural and digital ecologies to help organizations thrive across multiple ecosystems. Daniel hosts podcasts, speaks at conferences, and his ideas have appeared in Inc, SmartBlog, MediaPost, Forbes, and Success Magazine.
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