Different: Let's Stop Boring Our Customers

Last Updated Apr 27, 2010 11:54 AM EDT

Here's the great paradox of modern consumerism. You can walk down a store aisle and see 37 kinds of soap, dozens of power bars and enough cereal brands to feed a small island nation. But other than price and colors on the box, very little distinguishes one product from another.

Harvard Business School marketing expert Youngme Moon calls this "category blur." Companies think they are skillfully differentiating their products, but in fact the products all blend together in the mind of the shopper. Is Herbal Essences really that different from Pantene or Head & Shoulders? Different from Suave? Paul Mitchell? Aveda? Clairol? Nexxus? L'Oreal? Vidal Sassoon? Redken?
Moon's just released book, Different: Escaping the Competitive Herd, looks at why companies have lost the power to differentiate and what can be done to again stand out in a crowd.

Some ideas to consider:

  • Brand blahs. As products merge, customers lose brand loyalty. "There is no question in my mind that, when it comes to many consumer brands and services, overall brand loyalty is on the decline," says Moon.
  • Less is more. One way a product or service can be powerfully differentiated is by taking away features, achieving a core simplicity that appeals to overtaxed consumers. "Restraint can be the new desire," she writes.
  • Differentiation is a mindset. To be truly different, companies must commit to making their products and services stand apart in fundamental ways that mean something to consumers and that are almost impossible to replicate.
How did we get in this mess? Moon believes companies try hard to match each other's inventions, so as not to "fall behind" the feature list of competitors. You introduced a three-blade razor? I've got my own three-blader right here.

The result. Competitive conformity.

"In category after category, companies have gotten so collectively locked into a particular cadence of competition that they appear to have lost sight of their mandate--which is to create meaningful grooves of separation from one another. Consequently, the harder they compete, the less differentiated they become."
Examples of successful differentiation? Look at the feature-packed sameness of AOL and Yahoo, then compare those sites with the austere brilliance of Google search. Does the MINI Cooper remind you of any other car? Does an Apple PC look and feel like a "me too" model from Dell or Acer?

Read this interview with Moon on HBS Working Knowledge for more insights.

What brands or products do you think truly stand out from the rest?

(Shampoo shelves image by Clean Wal-Mart, CC 3.0)

  • Sean Silverthorne

    Sean Silverthorne is the editor of HBS Working Knowledge, which provides a first look at the research and ideas of Harvard Business School faculty. Working Knowledge, which won a Webby award in 2007, currently records 4 million unique visitors a year. He has been with HBS since 2001.

    Silverthorne has 28 years experience in print and online journalism. Before arriving at HBS, he was a senior editor at CNET and executive editor of ZDNET News. While at At Ziff-Davis, Silverthorne also worked on the daily technology TV show The Site, and was a senior editor at PC Week Inside, which chronicled the business of the technology industry. He has held several reporting and editing roles on a variety of newspapers, and was Investor Business Daily's first journalist based in Silicon Valley.