“If the company’s facts (speed, price, quality) are superior to the competition, any good competitor will duplicate them, or worse improve upon them, as soon as possible. What a company can own, however, is a personality.”
Marc Benioff, Chairman and CEO of Salesforce
If you believe that trying to create and market the best product is what it takes to win, this article might raise your blood pressure.
I see many B2B marketers overuse reason and facts in their advertising and sales communication. I’ve been there myself—going all-in on tables, figures, and comparables to convince customers that we are, in fact, the better company with the better products.
But here’s the first problem.
Nobody believes you.
And here’s another problem.
Most companies sound like everyone else and are about as interesting as people who Instagram their food.
My argument is this. You shouldn’t try to create and market the best product. What you need to do is create the best position.
And to get to the best position, you have to be different. Not better.
In response, marketers have gone bananas with “mirror marketing”—stuff like blog posts about “X service vs. Y service” and lists with 81,357 features that no one cares about.
This type of head-to-head content might rock on Google search. But here’s the bad news. When you start to compare your product to others, you:
- Promote your competitor’s leadership
- Build a shortsighted position
- Show others where to beat you
- Encourage customers to skip the foreplay and just ask for the price (“you’re all the same to me!”)
These are just some of the problems. Next up, you’ll see just how hard it is to convince other people that you’re right, even if you’re armed to the teeth with facts.
What is the best anyway?
Take your pick:
- Mac or PC?
- Mercedes or BMW?
- Sushi or barbeque?
Look at your answers. Are they based on careful analysis? Would everyone agree with you? No and no, because what’s best is an opinion. Not a fact.
In “The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing”, authors Al Ries and Jack Trout introduce The Law of Perception.
This “law” explains why marketing is not a battle of products; it’s a battle of the mind:
“It’s an illusion. There is no objective reality. There are no facts. There are no best products. All that exists in the world of marketing are perceptions in the minds of the customer or prospect. The perception is the reality. Everything else is an illusion.”
– Ries and J. Trout (The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing, 1993)
There are two important takeaways here. First, everything is based on perception. And secondly, people make up their own reality. Trying to convince others that you’re better is pointless. It’s like a democrat trying to win over a republican. It’s just not going to happen.
Your only sustainable option is this:
What does different sound like?
The good news is that you don’t have to convince someone that you’re different before they buy from you. If you sound different, it can be so intriguing that no one can deny it.
When launching the iPod, Apple could’ve said: “The ultimate MP3 player with 8 GB for all your files.” Instead, they wrote one of the best headlines ever:
A 1,000 songs in your pocket.
Another great example is Shopify: Your mom should be your first customer, not your only customer. Let’s make you a business.
Or Twilio’s concise use of words: Ask your developer.
These three examples share a common trait. They tell a different story—a story competitors can’t copy.
When a company communicates with how they’re different instead of better, this type of subconscious dialogue starts to brew in the mind of your potential customer:
- “That’s not something you see every day. You’ve earned my attention.”
- “I get what they sell,” or even “That’s intriguing.”
- “These guys understand me, I can tell. I bet they have the best solution.
A short checklist for you
Next time, before you launch a new campaign, look at it closely (words and visuals) and ask yourself this:
- Is your campaign telling a great story with just a few well-chosen words?
- Does it have a unique and likeable voice and personality?
- Is it so evergreen that you could run it next year, too?
You need to say “hell yeah” to all three.
Why most positioning frameworks don’t work
The conventional view is to go berserk with classic positioning frameworks from old marketing books. You try to analyze how you can differentiate on product, price, quality, benefits, or whatever.
Then, the grand finale comes when you put very bland words into a “we do [this], for [these people], who then gets [XYZ results].” I’ve tried this exercise at different companies. Every time the process was gut-wrenching, and the result sucked.
I would even go as far and to say that most frameworks are so standardized that you remove all buzz and personality.
So, if you’re like me—a bit lazy with limited imagination—there’s a much greater route.
Yes, you read that right.
Find the companies out there that already rock the show in their industry. Study how they do it, and throw your old positioning frameworks into the bonfire while you’re at it.
Can you imitate to be different? Absolutely.
Found a company with a great personality? Copy it.
See a business model work in another industry? Steal it.
You need to find a window into the mind of your target group (or ICP). And the right question is, “In what relevant way can we be the first to be or do [ZYX] in our industry?”
It’s the Law of the Category: If you can’t be first in a category, set up a new category you can be first in. And the easiest way is to study the best from other industries.
Claims about anything being original are greatly exaggerated. And when other people’s work inspires you, you will most likely do tweaks to make it your own.
So, copy, steal, and get inspired by the best ideas out there—but never from your own industry.
Look at your competitors in a new way
It’s tempting to look at your competitors and try to win by doing it “better” or “more creative.”
Unless you’re already the category leader, I wouldn’t try.
Instead, look at everything your competitors are not doing—things that are important to customers—and start here to strike gold.
Here are a few examples of how to look at competitors:
- Do they target big corps? Then target SMB
- Are they big and slow? Show how nimble and quick you are
- Is their communication boring? Lighten up your own copywriting
- Any platforms your competitors are not advertising on? Find out how you can dominate that space.
How others found a unique value proposition
With the evolving music scene of the 1950s, there was a need to make guitars louder.
Today, 70 years later, many musicians still turn to one of the first brands that solved this problem: Gibson Les Paul.
Did Les Paul invent the guitar? Nope. Did he create electricity? You know, he didn’t. But Les Paul was one of the first to amplify guitars by combining guitars with electricity (and make them sound more awesome in the process!)
In this example, an existing product is merged with existing technology to create a new value proposition.
Most times, you don’t even have to reinvent the guitar.
In some industries, all the major players compete for the big accounts. Here, the opportunity could be to snatch all the small and medium-sized businesses.
AWS, Intuit, and Shopify are companies that elevated the limbo bar to make it easy for smaller companies to dance straight into services that used to be exclusively for the big boys. They created new categories within existing categories.
Instead of trying to ‘disrupt’ industries, you need to create your own space where it’s less crowded. You do this by combining technologies or finding new market niches.
HubSpot, the business, has executed extremely well since launching in 2006. However, I would argue that the clincher is HubSpot’s story about how “crappy sales experiences” (the words of founder Dharmesh Shah, at INBOUND 2017) and traditional marketing of spray and pray doesn’t cut it anymore.
Our company uses HubSpot, and it’s fantastic. But the company’s position is what sets it apart. Today, HubSpot is synonymous with inbound sales and marketing. They’ve invested years into doing things differently and now own the category.
HubSpot is a prime example of how you can build thought leadership through narrative, content, and events.
“We make healthy drinks. Please buy them so we don’t get fired.”
The communication team of Innocent Drinks is out of this world. Think about it. They sell juice. But Innocent’s style and sound are so easy to recognize and much more fun, bold, and likable than any other beverage company out there.
If, and when, your company is genuinely different, it’s not only your marketing that stands out. So does your company culture and identity.
Different helps to guide company priorities and cuts out a lot of noise. Being different makes you focus on your own path and less about what the competition is doing.
I’ve worked at a company where our main focus was always “what are our competitors doing?” and “what are the latest features they introduced?”
Sadly, we played our competitors’ game and accepted their leadership. And guess what? Our company was always hustling to play catch-up when instead, we should have spent our time positioning ourselves as the alternative for customers.
When you’re a leader in your own category, you automatically attract the right customers that buy into what you do and how you do things. It’s sticky.
You also tend to land employees with the right values and skill sets. And just as important, being different detracts the type of customers and employees you don’t want hanging around.
To summarize, and please the readers who scrolled in the hope of a TL;DR, here are the main points:
- Different beats better
- Marketing is not a battle of products; it’s a battle of the mind
- Reality is perception, not facts
- Steal and get inspired by the best ideas outside your industry
- Do the opposite of your competitors—if it brings value
- Combine technologies to invent a new category. Or …
- Find a vacant niche within your industry
Final words: Your marketing shouldn’t aim to be creative. It doesn’t have to be brilliant, either. But it must be different.
About the author
Kristian Magnus Nielsen is the CMO at Cloud Factory. With 10+ years of B2B experience as head of marketing, Kristian’s primary skills are to lead successful marketing programs, and create content that attracts attention, educates buyers, and drives demand. Kristian also claims to know a thing or two about positioning. Connect with him on LinkedIn if you want to discuss B2B marketing.