You know you believe in your own differentiation if you actually feel good when some choose your competitors instead of you.

The core of differentiating yourself, your brand, or your business is determining the fundamental thing or things that set you apart from your competition. The presumption is that that thing or those things will lead some to choose you, your brand or business instead of your competitors. The corollary is that some others will find competitive people, brands or businesses more valuable or appealing and will choose those competitors instead you.

Air Jordan

The story of Nike’s Air Jordan is a case in point.

Nike made running shoes and a lot of them.

They expanded into basketball shoes, but sold far less basketball shoes than running shoes as they had a smaller share of a smaller market.

At the time most basketball players wore Converse or Adidas. All the major basketball shoe companies’ essential strategy was to pay professional basketball players to wear their shoes expecting other basketball players to want to wear the shoes their favorite basketball players were wearing.

Then Nike flipped the approach with Michael Jordan. Instead of getting Jordan to wear their existing shoes, they designed a shoe specifically for Jordan. The original shoe was physically designed for the way he played and was predominantly red, matching his Chicago Bulls team colors, instead of the more generally appealing white. The year they signed up Jordan, he was the only new player they signed.

Note the choices:

  • Sign up one player, giving up all others.
  • Design a shoe for that one player, giving up general appeal.
  • Match that player’s team colors, giving up all other teams – and paying a $5,000 fine per game because the colors did not meet the NBA’s 51% white color policy.

They expected to gain share of the market for people wearing shoes to play basketball – which they did. They expected Jordan to be a star – which he was. What they had not anticipated was how transcendent a star Jordan became and how all his fans would want to wear “his” shoe everywhere.

Strive to be the 90/10 loser instead of 60/40 winner

In my earlier article on the upside of marketing to the 10% that care most, I talked about how the 60% of people that preferred Pepsi to Coke in blind taste tests did not actually care a lot, but how in other situations the 10% that preferred other brands were passionate.

The same logic applies to job interviews. The 60/40 winner will get 6/10 second interviews and then generally come in second. The 90/10 loser will get only 1/10 job interviews and then be much more likely to get that job offer.

Procter & Gamble’s Puritan Oil was healthier than other cooking oils. We were so focused on health that, as the brand leader, I’d start every meeting with the question, “How will this meeting make our consumers or business healthier?” If people couldn’t answer, I’d walk out.

Our advertising, communication to health-care professionals and public relations were aligned and powerful. Then, to go the next level and become more mainstream, we added a larger size and increased our promotional spending. We grew 50%.

When the CEO, Ed Artzt, saw that we were doing that and taking business from P&G’s #1 mainstream cooking oil, Crisco, he merged Puritan into Crisco. In forgetting that we’d given up on mainstream, we gave up our position and ceased to be of value.

Implications for you

This is strategy 101. Michael Porter taught us that strategy is choosing what not to do. Harry Kangis taught us that choosing not to do something that’s a bad idea is easy. The hard thing is choosing not to do something that’s a good idea – for somebody else.

The prescription:

  1. Lock in on your single most important point of differentiation.
  2. Focus all your resources, efforts, investment and communication on that one thing.
  3. Be happy when someone chooses a different alternative because that one thing was not the most important thing for them. Take it as reinforcement of the choices you made and your success in communicating your point of differentiation to them. Now, when they come across someone who needs what you’re offering, they can refer you.

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