The Language of Differentiation

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An oracle I drew from the I Ching recently said: “…the superior man is careful in the differentiation of things so that each finds its place.”

The image of the oracle showed fire above water. Fire flames upward, clinging to its fuel below and radiating brightness; whereas water flows downward from its source above, always seeking the lowest level and filling up the greatest and smallest of depressions equally before flowing on. There’s hardly a combination of forces that could be more different. This gave me pause for thought. For a business to be noticed and attract a loyal following say the gurus, it must be differentiated. To differentiate something is to make it unlike or dissimilar in character. But human nature has a tendency to avoid being too different.

I looked further into the ancient reading. “When fire is above and water is below, their effects take opposite directions.” Given that the effect of fire is brightness that radiates upwards, and that of water is flow that gravitates downward, this seems pretty obvious. But what apparently is being counselled is more than the obvious superficiality. It is through the effects of their forces that the different natures find their places.

Differentiation is critical to effective advertising.

The job of advertising is to create an effect. And through the words we use, we ask people to perceive our offer as being different from alternate choices. To create a perception of difference using the words and pictures of advertising, we need to consider the nature of the forces that are involved.

Back to fire and water for a minute.

The nature of fire is that it is hot and dries things. The nature of water is that it is wet. If we don’t want them to interfere with each other, then it is best we keep their effects separated! This is what is meant by being careful in their differentiation. The tricky part when it comes to applying this to advertising and strategy is to actually achieve that effect with the product or brand we are presenting to a customer. Back to the book.

Reading a little further, I uncovered this little gem: “If we wish to achieve an effect, we must first investigate the nature of the forces in question and ascertain their proper places.”

What are the forces in question?

In the advertising world they are the attributes and perceptions of the product or brand we are advertising (forces that result in customer benefits); those of the competition (forces that attract, or keep, customers away from us), and the values that customers are seeking from their choices (forces that result in action that is beneficial to our cause).

Obviously if we don’t want our competitors to interfere with our offer, then we must differentiate ourselves from them. That way people (prospects and customers) can say there’s Us, and then there’s Them. To have the desired effect, all we need to do is bring these forces to bear in the right place and the right way. Simple strategy.

But these forces are largely out of our control because they are external forces. The job of advertising is to manipulate these forces. Advertising uses the attributes and perceptions of products and services and creates drama around their abilities to uniquely solve problems for customers.

The I Ching once again. “…In order to handle external forces properly, we must above all arrive at the correct standpoint ourselves, for only from this vantage can we work correctly.”

Only if we are correctly positioned can a difference have the desired effect. That is, a customer must perceive our position as being relevant to his or her needs, and different from that of our competitors. The desired effect of advertising is to bring our brand and a customer together and unite them—make a connection. This requires the twofold action of separating your customer from your competitor and separating you from your competitor. Says the good book: “one must separate things in order to unite them.”

Differentiation occurs in the attributes of a product or brand, not in the benefits.

A difference is a character trait of the brand that is not applicable to a competitor’s brand. It occurs because you choose to do something different from your competitors, or to do the same things competitors do but do them differently. But there are a few catches.

The difference must to be able to be translated into a benefit that is desired by prospects. There’s not a lot of point in being different if no one wants what you’re offering and the difference is meaningless. The difference has to be able to be perceived so that it can be labelled. Correct positioning depends on this combination of perception and labelling. The difference has to have life, or at the very least the potential of life. The simple fact is you cannot have drama without life, and because customers expect your advertising to tell a story that is meaningful over a period of time, the difference has to be relative to competition—even if that competition is your own brand.

Good advertising comes from understanding exactly what forces drive your prospects; what the force of your differentiation is and exactly what the right positioning is. Positioning derives from the benefit that arises out of the differentiation. Differentiation is the effect of what it is you’re doing that is different. It is the effect because it results in an attribute that can be claimed or labelled.

Positioning on the other hand is the nature of that force, how it is perceived. And it is the subject of a different discussion.


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