The Press, March 2012

Anger seems to be the dominant response to the ‘government selling the Crafar dairy farms to the Chinese’.

Never mind it is actually the receivers of a bankrupt private Kiwi company looking to sell the farms to a Chinese-owned company. Never mind that there was little such reaction to Canadian film director James Cameron buying land in the Wairarapa recently, or US singer Shania Twain buying swatches of Central Otago some years ago.

Why the double standard? It is mainly because the ‘Chinese’ are different. We don’t really understand them well, and fear them in our ignorance.

A similar dynamic operates in the marketing world. Being ‘different’ is a poor marketing strategy, rather it is ‘differentiating’ that brings profitable sales. The difference is subtle but fundamental.

Take the digital camera.

At a local seminar several years ago, a renowned American product designer gave a fascinating account of working within a major electronics company as they were developing one of the first digital cameras.

Early prototypes were a tablet-like device with a big lens attached to the front. Users looked down at the screen in their lap while the lens pointed forward to capture the image.

Test consumers hated it, didn’t really understand it and struggled to see if it would be of any use to them. It was simply too different.

After this initial feedback, the product designers decided to develop a new prototype that was more like a traditional point and click film-based camera. And much to the engineers’ disgust, they also added a shutter sound to mimic the exposure sound a film-based camera makes, even though the device was quite capable of capturing images soundlessly.

The benefits of the original digital camera prototype were significant, it could take and store high quality images without the need for film, and it was silent and portable.

But it was too unfamiliar for consumers, too different. Neither change to the design enhanced the functionality of the device, but were critical to its success.

The changes made the device familiar to consumers, something they could grasp easily and then enjoy the additional benefits it offered. The rest is history.

Margarine is another interesting example.

Margarine was white when originally marketed in the 1940s. It was cheaper and healthier than butter, but initial sales were poor.

Until the manufacturers did some customer research and decide to change the colour to yellow. This did nothing for the taste or nutritional benefit of the product, but it transformed people’s attitude to the spread.

As the dictionary defines it, different means “not alike in character or quality; differing; dissimilar. Not ordinary, unusual.” Different is strange, weird, risky. Not something the majority of customers want.

A segment of a market are willing take risks and try something completely new, but the larger and most profitable groups of consumers resists change. The better approach is to not be different, but to differentiate.

Differentiate means “to form or mark differently from other such things.” That is, it’s a variation on a theme rather than something completely new.

How do you differentiate, rather than simply be different?

Firstly, it’s about identifying the category your product fits in. Customers will want to start their search for your type of product in some broadly familiar area, you need to be associated with that.

Try the ‘Google Test’. If searching for how you describe your product yields few, or unclear, results, start worrying. That means you are lost in the ocean of online information and no one is looking for you.

Secondly, it’s important to understand the customer problem your product is solving. Problems are enduring, it is the solutions we create that are constantly evolving and developing.

In camera terms, humans have been recording their memories and impressions of the world around them since our ancestors started writing on cave walls. The solution then was a bit of coal and a rock wall, and after many evolutions has become a digital device. The need has never changed over that time, it is constant and fundamental.

Once you have established the category you fit in, and what customer need you are meeting, you can then seek to differentiate, articulate how your product is a different way of solving that problem.

For margarine, by changing the colour it became more familiar to consumers. It was like that familiar old butter, they could see it spread on their toast in the morning, but it offered some unique advantages.

We are all more comfortable with things we understand. If we all went to visit China, or invited some Chinese business people to our house, our fear of their land purchases would disappear. We would understand they are no better or no worse than anyone else wanting to buy our land, and should be treated the same.

Don’t let prospective customers fear buying your product. Don’t be different.

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