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3 Ways to Create Distinction for Your Company

Sometimes the only difference between you and your competition is language

We hear it all the time from our clients:  

“We know we’re different, but how do we make ourselves sound different?” 

Sometimes the only difference between you and your competition is language. With the right language, you can change behaviors and perceptions, and drive sales. Sounds great, right? So how do you create the unique language that’ll change the game for you and help you win in the marketplace? 

First, let’s talk semantics. What are you really trying to create: differentiation… or distinction? Differentiation is the process of trying to find something that is uniquely different; something elusive. Most businesses approach differentiation like a scavenger hunt. They go searching for that “special sauce” that’s truly unique about them. “If people only knew XYZ about us they would know how different and better we are!”, they say. 

It’s natural for a business to start by looking inward — at their people, their culture, their products, and their processes to define what makes them different. But those are internal factors that matter to your people on the inside. It’s important to look at your business like someone on the outside would. And the reality is, in their mind, you may not be that different. 

It’s fundamentally a perception challenge. It’s about who can sound different, as opposed to who or what is truly different. And that’s where language comes in. It opens a world of possibilities for how you position yourself as being distinct. 

Three Questions to Ask to Create Distinction 

To create distinction for your company through language, start by asking these three questions:  

  1. “What are we?” 

As humans, we try to categorize things. We put things in different buckets, to help make sense of the world. There’s beer and then there’s light beer. There are healthcare companies and then there are health and wellness companies. 

So what category are people putting your company in? Decide if that’s the category you want to be in. If not, is there a different category you can put your company in to stand out more from the competition? 

One way to determine a category is to look at nouns. Complete this sentence: 

“We are a ___________ company.” 

What noun would you use to fill in the blank? Could you use a different noun? What are the advantages of one versus another? Then look for noun modifiers. That’s often where we find sub-categories, like a “light” beer. 

So much of marketing is about category definition. Everywhere you look, whether it’s in technology, pharmaceuticals, finance, or any other area, you see that whole new industries are created by recategorizing or subcategorizing an existing category. 

It can also be a fun exercise to figure out how to de-position yourself. One example we’re all familiar with is the COVID vaccine. Moderna and Pfizer both came out with mRNA vaccines. They both had two doses, and there was a fight over efficacy. Then Johnson & Johnson came along, third to market. They could have just come in as the third COVID vaccine, to be measured against the others based on efficacy. But instead, they came in and said, “We are the first single-shot COVID vaccine,” which put them in a different category. They appealed to people whose barrier to getting vaccinated may have been getting two shots, or having to miss work twice, or maybe having to go through side effects twice. J&J eliminated that by creating a whole new category. 

Whatever category you place your company in – a COVID vaccine, an insurance company, a credit card – people are going to have immediate associations with it. Understanding those associations (and potential obstacles) is a huge part of choosing your category and creating distinction. 

  1. “What does our product or service do?” 

If the first question is about identity, this one is about function. What does your product or service make easier for someone’s life as a user or customer? What negatives does it remove? What positives does it add? Looking at the list of benefits you have to offer is often one of the easiest places to start. 

We recently worked with a group that represents what’s known as the “scrap recycling industry.” They’re the industrial backbone of recycling and a circular economy, making sustainability a reality. But they ran into a real challenge. If you talk about scrap and you call yourselves scrap recyclers, people focus on negative things like trash and junkyards. It’s not the kind of “green-positive” association that the industry deserves. We helped them create new language that focused on outputs of their work: what it is it that they actually make. We helped them reframe from being the “scrap recycling industry” to being the “recycled materials industry”; a renewable source of high-quality materials for the everyday items and essential infrastructure that people rely on. That shift has the potential to substantially change the way people see the industry. 

  1. “What does this product or service mean?” 

This is the hardest question because in some ways it’s also the most flexible and creative. Take a step back from what your product or service actually is and think symbolically: what does it stand for? What values does it appeal to? How does it make people feel when they use it? This gives you a lot of room to explore on emotional territory. For each of these questions, consider how to frame that differentiation in a way that stands out, that will really disrupt how people think about your product or category. 

If there’s one key takeaway here, it’s to encourage you to approach this process less as being about finding your differentiation. Instead, think about how you can present your story differently, in a way that’s going to alter perceptions and drive sales. 

One final note: don’t expect a “eureka” moment. Often, when we present our clients with the language that will make them distinct based on our research, it doesn’t always feel incredibly exciting internally at first. And it’s not surprising. Remember that it’s not about what’s most important to you, or how you feel about it. It’s about what’s important to your customers and target audiences. Finding your distinction often requires taking a leap of faith to meet your customers where they are and then committing to it. When you do – when you double down and do so consistently, suddenly you will find that you are known in the marketplace exactly how you want to be known and you are having the impact you want to have. 

Want to learn more? Contact us here – and check out this episode of HearSay, where we explore in even greater depth how Language Strategy can change the game and help you win in the marketplace.