As vaccination rates rise and COVID-19 infection rates fall, the economy is showing new life. As businesses spring to life to take advantage of consumers eager to enjoy new products and services, the businesses that support them are finding both new opportunity and new disruption. As Carsten Lund Pedersen and Thomas Ritter wrote in a recent article in HBR, many firms “are questioning their viability post-pandemic” and there is an increasing need to understand one’s position in the market, and the role they play relative to peers. Small wonder, given the sudden explosion in start-ups: last year, Americans started 4.4 million businesses, a 24% increase from the year before.
The problem, in a nutshell, is differentiation: how to stand out, when there are so many others looking to occupy the same ground? Advertising Guru Jack Trout focused on this problem way back at the turn of the millennium in his famous Differentiate or Die. And yet, despite the consistency and importance of the problem, companies continue to struggle to get differentiation right. The pandemic has only added more complexity, as it has disrupted so much of what we once thought was business as usual.
All the more reason, then, to approach differentiation with more rigor, especially in B2B buying decisions. Ken Rufo of Manchester Street emphasizes that “Differentiation matters because business level buying decisions are increasingly complex. They involve longer timeframes, more people with more input, and more aggressive marketing from competitors. Every buyer or prospect is getting inundated by marketing and sellers, and if your marketers and your sellers are saying the same thing everyone else is, it’s hard to stand out and get buyers to take notice.
Rufo has a somewhat unique perspective on differentiation, in large part because his background is in academics, not marketing, which he came to after years of studying and teaching about how persuasion works. “The real question,” he notes, “is always: does the marketing, does the content, does the argument made by a seller actually move the needle? Does it make someone more likely to engage or agree or to think differently about a product or category? That’s a much more difficult thing to see with traditional digital metrics, but it is ultimately the thing that every seller is looking for when an MQL graduates to a sales opportunity.”
Manchester Street LLC is a marketing consultancy focused primarily on using differentiation to drive marketing and sales strategy, primarily in the B2B technology space. Rufo suggests that differentiation remains somewhat undertheorized, despite the popularity of the topic. “Product teams like to focus on features, brand teams tend to focus on ethos, customers tend to focus on use cases,” he says. “It can be difficult to blend these together, especially when you’re heavily reliant on certain types of data. That data is incredibly useful, incredibly powerful, but it isn’t actually measuring persuasion. It’s providing a record of interactions and points of contact. We can approach differentiation more rigorously, but to do so we have to think about it as a triangulation, not as something derived from one perspective or from the existing data.”
Getting this right will be one of the more significant challenges of the next few years, as government investments, new startups, and new ways of doing business combine to change the technologies and platforms upon which business is built. Most likely, we won’t know the winners from the losers without time doing its work of sorting them all out. But we can predict the ones who stand up and stand out will be the one with the fighting chance.
Learn more about Manchester Street by visiting their official website.