Are You Meaningfully Different?
One of the most compelling business books I have read recently is Different: Escaping The Competitive Herd by Youngme Moon, the Donald K. David Professor of Business Administration and Senior Associate Dean, Chair of the MBA Program, at Harvard Business School. Her research focuses on marketing innovation and brand differentiation, two key elements of any successful business but especially applicable to the promotional products marketplace.
As shown in this Different video, Moon's book discusses how our culture has more than we could ever need or want and how the business landscape seems like companies are in a race to nowhere. Businesses are stuck on the competitive treadmill desperately trying to keep up with one another. But with everyone trying to be bigger, better and faster, she says they all end up just like everyone else.
Today there are more brands, more products and more choices. But, in reality, it's just more of the same. Moon says there is "a great big blur of similarity." Sounds like our industry, doesn't it? Not only are multiple suppliers buying from the same factories, but there are also even more distributors offering the exact same product lines to end-buyers. Where's the difference in that?
In the absence of any true differentiation, products will devolve into commodities—and commodity purchases are based on price. Perhaps the reason our industry spends so much time talking about price is because there's nothing else to talk about. As a result, our advertising medium loses value and ends up being known, as the media likes to refer to it, as "trinkets and trash"—a moniker that reflects poorly not only on our industry but also on those advertisers who use our products.
But there is a way to make the trash talk—and the price wars—stop: By creating true differentiation. In Different, Moon asks, "What does it mean for a business to be different? Meaningfully different? How do you set your company apart in a business environment that seems like a great big blur of similarity?" The future of our industry's prosperity lies in the answers to these questions.
While many of you may be scratching your heads trying to think up the next big thing for your product line, there is a differentiator you may not have considered. A growing number of companies do have something unique to offer to their customers: An industry-leading, comprehensive compliance program.
Compliance as a competitive differentiator? You bet. In fact, some industry companies have begun to see the opportunity that is wrapped up in the challenge of compliance. Check out my previous post, "Surf's Up: Our Industry Is At A Tipping Point," to see what I mean.
Having a comprehensive compliance program sets you apart from the industry herd. How? Done right, a compliance program requires you to have full transparency and control of your supply chain so you know exactly where your products are sourced and what materials are used to create them. This tells your customers that you understand the value in their brand and know how to protect it—by providing an advertising medium that complements their brand equity, not one that harms it. Being compliant and offering safe merchandise positions you as a trusted partner rather than just another promotional products supplier. It gives you something to talk about other than price. Overall, it makes you a better company—a company that is meaningfully different from all the others.
The bottom line is this: In order for our industry to survive the continual cutbacks in advertising and marketing budgets, we must be different in a way that actually makes a difference. "Difference is a commitment to the unprecedented," Moon says. "And the businesses that stand out are the ones that understand this, even as they take that sharp left turn down that unpaved road." I couldn't agree more.
Brent Stone is executive director - operations for Quality Certification Alliance (QCA), the promotional products industry's only independent, not-for-profit organization dedicated to helping companies provide safe products. A Six Sigma Black Belt, Stone has more than 25 years of in-depth supply chain management experience with extensive expertise in process design, development, improvement and management. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.qcalliance.org for more information.