Originally posted June 2005. Latest update November 2017.
This article was written by Brian Pelletier, a marketing communications professional based in Chicago.
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Especially with high-tech products and services, the overwhelming desire to differentiate all too often leads to the same description as one's competitors, as everyone relies on the same tired phrases that have come to mean absolutely nothing.
Positioning differentiates a product or service from its competitors. A customer can choose between several products, and somehow the manufacturers need to demonstrate that each product is different, to help the customer make a better, more informed choice. In reality, the products might be essentially the same, and so differentiating requires creativity.
When selecting a personal finance software package, for instance, consumers can choose between "easy-to-use software that simplifies personal finance management, allowing you to quickly organize your finances" and another that claims to be "the easiest way to manage your finances."
Microsoft Money and Intuit's Quicken are essentially the same program. The each feature different bells and whistles, but differ little in functionality. Even their positioning is the same - do you know which description applies to Money and which is Quicken's? If you can't tell, does it matter?
So how can consumers make a choice, when all choices are equal? Microsoft and Quicken differentiate by bundling other products, such as tax preparation software, or services, such as online bill payment. The two companies compete on the size of their bundles, and on price.
Positioning of the products themselves is irrelevant, as proven by the companies' own statements that blur the difference between the two packages. The "winner" will be the company that can give away the most value for the least amount of money. Not an enviable position.
On the other end of the spectrum are the companies that position their products too finely. If a company differentiates enough, it can put its product or service into a class by itself, effectively "eliminating" the competition. By stringing together enough descriptors, the product suddenly becomes a class unto itself.
For instance, take a look at e-mail marketing services. Dozens of companies offer such services, but one company claims to offer "the industry's only email marketing solution to expertly combine proven technology, consultative services and applied educational programs to deliver high ROI and strong overall results." The industry's only. Small wonder, with all the descriptors (split infinitives notwithstanding).
Creative marketers and communicators can find ways to break through the clutter and differentiate their products and services without confusing customers The middle of the spectrum, between establishing your product as a commodity and differentiating your product into oblivion, is where profitability - and true challenge - resides.
Avis car rental "tries harder." With Hallmark, you "care enough to send the very best." CDW offers "the right technology, right away," hitting both the products and the service in one short phrase. The positioning is simply good communication - a clear message that resonates with the target audience.
It's not easy - but if it were easy, everybody could do it.
Brian Pelletier is a leading freelance marketing communications consultant specializing in writing for the high-tech and business-to-business markets based in Chicago.