The Rewards of Trying to Be Different

James T. Berger headshot

James T. Berger
Senior Marketing Writer

Published November 6, 2010

“In my research, what I learned was that despite the fact that most companies are committed to the concept of differentiation, at any given moment they are also intensely aware of what their competitors are doing, and it is this competitive vigilance that ultimately pushed them down a path of conformity,” says Harvard Business School Prof. Youngme Moon, author of “Different: Escaping the Competitive Herd,” published by Crown Business in  April of this year.

The author has a wide background in consumer marketing strategies and she observes that in the marketplace  “there is a huge disconnect between the way we talk about differentiation and the way it actually plays out in the market.”

She notes, in an article by Sara Jane Gilbert in the April 26, 2010 issue of Harvard Business School WORKING KNOWLEDGE,  that modern business theory preaches the need for companies to differentiate their products and services and build strategies around being different.  Yet, the competitive environment with wide arrays of similar product, makes it very hard for companies to try to break away from the herd.

She points out that in today’s marketplace there is such a profusion of similar brands and products that the consumer encounters what she call the big “blur.”  In these situations, brand loyalty falls by the way because of the vast numbers of varieties of products in the category.

In a nutshell, she observes the desire to be different by companies in a competitive environment but the marketing managers with the best laid plans often get cold feet when it comes to implementation.  Hence, these ambitious plans get pushed aside while the company continues to try keeping its little place in the “blur.”

These premises make a great deal of sense to a strategic marketer like myself.  Who are the companies that dare to be different and what happens to them if they actually try to implement a differential strategy.

Let’s look at the airlines.  How many companies have come in and out of the market trying to differentiate themselves on price.  Remember People’s Express.  Yet today, one carrier dares to be different — Southwest.  Anyone who flies regularly will say that Southwest is a totally different experience.  They don’t do things the way other airlines do them.  It’s not that Southwest is the cheapest way to fly while that might have been an entry strategy years ago.  Southwest has matured so that it now is starting to compete very successfully with the United’s and American’s within the same airports.

Another example is Apple.  This company now has the biggest market capitalization of any company.  Apple recently surpassed Microsoft.  Everything Apple does is not steller.  This author has written about its product problems with the iPhone 4 and its iPad.  However, this company has the dogged determination to try to be different and to create products that rise about the clutter in those highly competitive industries that it competes.  The world of personal computers is communications is littered with companies that thought they could compete by holding on a little piece of the pie.

When you see a highly successful company in a highly competitive field, there is a good chance that company got there by successfully differentiating from the “blur.”

About The Author

James T. Berger headshot
James T. Berger, Senior Marketing Writer of The Wiglaf Journal, through his Northbrook-based firm, James T. Berger/Market Strategies, offers a broad range of marketing communications, research and strategic planning consulting services. In addition, he provides expert services to intellectual property attorneys in the area of trademark infringement litigation. An adjunct professor of marketing at Roosevelt University, he previously has taught at Northwestern University, DePaul University, University of Illinois at Chicago and The Lake Forest Graduate School of Management. He holds degrees from the University of Michigan (BA), Northwestern University (MS) and the University of Chicago (MBA). Berger is an often-published free lance business writer who has developed more than 100 published articles in the last eight years. For more information, visit or telephone him at (847) 328-9633.