In previous columns we covered aspects of the question how to identify a point of difference. We suggested means to find points of differences by looking at the various ways in which consumers come in contact with your brand or category. Listing all the ways or stages during which consumers get to experience your brand/category could give you ideas. For example, in the insurance business, prospects or buyers of insurance will interact with insurance companies/agents many times over a lifetime. This presents a whole lot of possibilities for differentiation.
Some marketing gurus point out that useful points of difference can be had by focusing on attributes/benefits that arguably are NOT core to a product/service category. By definition, core attributes/benefits are those which are essential to a product/service category. In other words, they are the kind you will expect to find in all or most of the brands competing in a category. In cellphones for example, core attributes/benefits would revolve around communications effectiveness, e.g. consistency, strength or sensitivity of signal, quality of microphones, resistance to damage to the handset when dropped, etc.
Against that background, Nokia pioneered offering interchangeable shells which encouraged personalization to a greater degree than any other brand at that time. This helped propel Nokia to a dominant position in cellphones worldwide as cellphone usage exploded all over. Nokia had correctly anticipated that with the increasing popularity of cellphones and the importance that users placed on having them always available and accessible everywhere, all day and everyday, phones would become a key part of how people live and dress. And with that would arise a need for personalization.
Nokia rode that wave of personalization which went beyond interchangeable shells to ring tones, message tones and so on, to global market leadership. Since then other brands have picked up the same ideas but Nokia has largely retained its dominant position, which testifies to the staying power of a brand which has become dominant early in the life of a product category.
Another brand that pioneered distinctiveness based on non-core attributes is Apple. While most other computer brands ran Microsoft's software and together built up a dominant position in computers globally, Apple was off in its own corner with its own software and its own following of people - people who needed the ease of use it offered partly because they were not inclined to learn Microsoft's somewhat more technical requirements before Windows arrived.
From that user-friendly platform, Apple then took the role of providing better-looking and better-feeling machinery unlike anything that came with Microsoft and Intel inside. Arguably, very nice looks are not core to a computer.
So while just about everyone else sold computers in generic looking industrial boxes and screens in beige or black, Apple sprang on the market with vividly colored casings and organic shapes. And it built a reputation for great looks, on top of user-friendly software, which has since been expressed in a steady stream of notebooks, iPods, iPhones and iPads.
Since then, some competitors have tried to raise their game in terms of design but in the consumer mind, Apple has cornered the market on good looks.
Recapping the point of these stories, differentiation can be had in not only the core performance attributes/benefits of a product/service category, but also in non-core areas like aesthetics, i.e. the looks and feel of products and services. Nokia understood that the growth of cellphones into a pervasive presence meant real changes in the way people perceived their cellphones. Their phones had become more integral to their identities and needed to express their owners' preferences to a greater degree than standard colors straight out of a box could, so customization became the order of the day.
Apple already stood apart from other computer brands because of its proprietary software. Already human-friendly, it layered another dimension to that with superior looks and feel. And it has moved beyond computers, expanding other categories with products that broke new ground in feel and looks, on top of functionality. Perhaps, something along those lines may be just what your business needs, i.e. superiority in a non-core attribute.

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