Radical Differentiation

The problem with radical differentiation when building a brand, for many companies, starts when they need to be radically different.

To be radically different means to be doing something nobody else is doing. But because of that, it looks crazy to do it yourself. There’s simply no precedent for success.

But just the opposite is true. To be a leader in a new market space, you must be radically different. You can’t lead by following the leader.

The uncertainty that comes from radical innovation deters a lot of companies from taking the leap.

To help quell the uncertainty, many companies perform focus groups, which, while helpful, can often lead to less than innovative ideas and solutions. This is because radical differentiation doesn’t test well with focus groups.

Ask a focus group what they want and they’ll invariably say they want more of the same. As Henry Ford famously said, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”

Focus groups aren’t a recipe for radical differentiation. They’ll only lead towards more me-too products with little innovation and little room for profit.

How to be radically different

To be radically different and set yourself on the right path, you can draw a chart with two axes. One for “good” and one for “different,” to see how your ideas stack up against others who have successfully differentiated.

Image Credit: Zag by Marty Neumeier

The “good” axis can include attributes that customers typically value, while the “different” axis is mapping out any offerings that are different from competitors.

The aim of this chart is to be in the upper right-hand corner, where “good” and “different” combine to make a successful radical differentiation.

Historically, successful radical differentiation tests poorly with focus groups. Often fairing pretty well on the good axis, but when it comes to the different axis, the focus groups tend to label the ideas as “weird,” “ugly,” “offbeat,” or “crazy.”

This causes companies to drop the solutions that aim to be different altogether, and instead aim them towards the upper left side of the chart, which only has solutions for good. The reason focus groups generally don’t have anything bad to say about this area of the chart is that there’s nothing new or different to dislike about it.

Consequently, while offerings in the upper-left may test well, there’s little chance they’ll lead to radical differentiation. Moreover, offerings on this side of the chart often have too little demand or too much competition to be profitable.

What makes the good-different chart challenging is that the difference between the potential winners in the upper-right corner looks a lot like the ideas in the bottom-right corner. The line becomes blurry and takes considerable experience to know the difference.

When BMW launched the Mini Cooper, research showed that Americans wanted another SUV, not a tiny car. However, despite what research showed, BWM moved forward with the Mini, which ended up positioning them in a market space nobody had previously explored. A position that has shown to be a successful and profitable one for them.

So, while radical differentiation may appear to be a misstep at times, those steps, well placed, can lead towards profitable unexplored market space.

Tanner Garniss-Marsh, RGD, is a brand strategist and designer working with business owners to bring their envisioned brand to life with strategic and practical solutions.

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