One of the most important determinants of a product's success — provided that there is a viable market for it — is the market's perception. As marketers, we know very well that perception is powerful. It can make or break a product. Or even the business behind it.
But here, I'm referring to differentiation, specifically to the perception of being different. You don't have to create something completely new, unique, or innovative to be different. You don't have to be 100% different, either. You just have to be perceived as different.
Be different in the mind, in other words.
Most new businesses try to compete in an existing product category. They promote and sell their widget as being the best widget on the market. Their widget can very well be the best, but if the category already exists, then it is likely dominated by another product.
To get any traction, it's a constant game of catch up — unless the category king gets complacent, which is a lucky break for the runner-up. But that's rare.
Trying to compete in an existing category is often counterproductive, because marketing efforts will only remind the market of the leader in that category. But if you're different by being the only player in your own category, you eliminate competition altogether.
In Play Bigger, the authors say that you can dominate markets not by creating a new product but by creating the category it's in. They call it category design.
In The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing, Jack Trout and Al Ries say that, if you can't be first in a category, set up a new one you can be first in. An example is Amelia Earhart. She wasn't the first person to fly across the Atlantic, but she certainly was the first woman.
Christopher Lochhead, in his podcast Follow Your Different and one of the authors of Play Bigger, admits that there are a million ways to do category design.
Here's one of my favorites.
Early in my career, a business mentor told me something that profoundly affected how I think about business, and it changed the way I looked at marketing ever since. He said:
“Implication is more powerful than specification.”
On an episode of 24, Jack Bauer threatens his adversary with torture. He only hints at the great pain he will inflict. The victim's face is seen grimacing, we hear a loud gasp, and then… silence. The show cuts to a commercial break. The torture is never shown.
The story only implied torture and pain, but they left it up to audience to imagine how bad things were going to be. The worst case scenario was ambiguous and merely hinted at, but it guided people's minds enough to make them come to that conclusion.
I winced, grimaced, and gasped during that scene. I'm sure most viewers did, too.
Now, this also applies to best case scenarios.
Some campaigns like to boast and brag. That's fine if you can back it up. But if you can't, then you're no longer bragging. You're lying or exaggerating at best. However, if you imply it rather than brag about it, then you allow others to come to that conclusion on their own.
They will own that conclusion. They will believe it. And they will defend it, too.
For example, claiming superiority appears self-serving and smacks of being untrue. Even when you can back it up. But it is better to imply superiority than it is to state it outright. It is more believable and credible. It is more impactful and memorable, too.
People have the tendency to attribute superiority to a product that's first in its category. And that's regardless of the fact that there may be other — ostensibly better — products.
To be the first in an existing category, the task can be daunting, expensive, and slow. But it is easier to be the first in a whole new product category to begin with. However, if the product already exists, creating the perception of a new category can work just as well.
Especially in industries where marketing claims are forcibly limited.
Take doctors, for example. One of my first clients was a hair transplant surgeon. When the standard at the time were unsightly “plugs,” he performed what are called “micrografts.”
These tinier grafts gave more natural-looking results.
However, his biggest competitor was a doctor who was one of the pioneers in the old-fashioned plug technique, and he, too, was claiming to perform micrografts.
My client, however, used powerful microscopes to transplant even smaller hair follicles. The results were virtually undetectable. He was offering true microscopic grafts when most doctors who performed micrografts were merely transplanting smaller plugs.
Prior to working with me, it was a struggle for him to gain traction. Everybody claimed to offer micrografts, including his biggest competitor. Plus, doctors are legally prohibited from claiming superiority over their peers — let alone that other doctors use inferior techniques.
Imply superiority by creating a whole new category.
So I decided to reposition him as a doctor who performed “micro-follicular grafts.” Instead of hair transplantation or even micrografts, he was known as the pioneer behind the micro-follicular redistribution process — a term he later trademarked, I believe.
Now, how can you do this yourself?
As Trout and Ries said, you don't have to be the first. You only have to be the first in the consumer's mind. And the easiest way to do this, particularly if you already have an existing product or service, is to create the perception of being unique or different.
For instance, you can cater to a unique market or to an existing market but in a unique way. You can customize your offering so that it appears unique or different. You can name, package, or deliver an existing product but with a unique twist.
In short, create your category by calling it something different.
Think of fancy job titles people use rather than standard ones.
By creating the perception of uniqueness rather than outright stating it, you communicate superiority, create almost instant credibility, and preemptively kill the competition.
So if you can't be unique, then at least be unique in the mind.