Marketers talk a lot about differentiation.

How are our products and services truly different? What makes our solution unique? We ask ourselves these questions pretty frequently. We develop messaging around these points of difference. We map our product differences against competitors, trumpet our differences to the marketplace, and try to draw attention to why they matter.

The trouble? That process is “us” centered. The value of the differences for the customer may not equate the value we imply in terms of the attention we try to draw to them.

I recently started a project to seal my deck. I was across town for an appointment the other day and had a few minutes to spare, so figured I would go into a nearby big-box store to get some deck sealer. There were several options for the clear deck coating I was looking for. One brand had both “transparent” and “clear,” showing the difference with a convenient graphic. I wasn’t sure how much I needed, so I looked at the coverage rates and got a few one-gallon containers of the “transparent” that I thought would cover a little side deck to start. Of course, it covered about two thirds of the side deck and I needed more. When I went to a store closer to my house, I found they didn’t carry that brand. So I got the first of what wound up being three five-gallon buckets of sealer, and figured I would start on the main deck and wait to finish the side until I could get back across town. I selected another brand’s “clear” sealer with the easy-pour spout. Now, I’m sure there are differences between “clear” and “transparent” in their product tests. The glossy pictures showed those differences. But in practice? No difference. No difference in the easy-pour spouts either. The point of this long-winded story is not that differences don’t matter, it’s that they are sometimes so difficult for the buyer to see that the actual value can’t possibly match their perceived value.

With no clear claims for product differentiation, our products are commoditized and price becomes the only factor by which buyers make decisions. We would rather over-promise than be seen as an “also ran” in the marketplace. This is like the steaming hot, thick juicy burger with fresh crisp lettuce and tomatoes we see on the commercials as compared to the lukewarm, flat, gray mess that comes inside the wrapper. The consequence of this type of marketing is an erosion of trust.

Salespeople know this. Marketers can develop fancy programs and campaigns, glossy brochures, and talking points all day long, but salespeople know if they over invest in explanations of differences that don’t really matter, their credibility will be shot. Salespeople rarely have time to explain the nuanced differences between every potential product offering anyway, so they often dismiss the carefully crafted marketing messages in favor of “real” differences that the customer cares about.

So what is a marketer to do? Ignore the hard fought features that product developers have designed, maybe even been patented, and carefully tested? Of course not. There are two paths that make sense. First, marketers should do careful mapping of the incremental value customers attach to each solution attribute. Focusing a marketing message around what is “new,” in a formulation may not always make sense if the value of the benefits isn’t easily experienced by customers. Second, marketers need to think about how they create value beyond product attributes. Developing novel aspects of distribution, packaging, and convenience may carry as much or more weight than a new product innovation.

Understanding how the customer experiences value is a critical component of selecting attributes for differentiation.

Strategic Agri-Marketing

Differentiation will be just one of the topics covered at Purdue’s Strategic Agri-Marketing open-enrollment program, Oct. 8-10 on the West Lafayette campus. The program, led by Scott Downey, associate professor and associate director of the Center for Food and Agricultural Business and Justin Funk of Canada’s Agri Studies, Inc., is an intensive course designed for managers and directors responsible for developing or implementing marketing strategies. Learn more and register.