Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Stand out or die

Do you really want to compete only on the basis of price?


Collapse of Distinction: Stand Out and Move Up While Your Competition Fails. Scott McKain. Thomas Nelson. 272 pages.

It's a strange time, uncertain and frightening. But it's a logical outcome for an economy fueled by funky credit, inflated real estate, cooked books, regulatory dereliction and more. Add the Internet, the commoditization of, well, nearly everything, and sundry international instabilities and you have quite a mess. We have quite a mess but life goes on and so does commerce, one of the surest expressions of human behavior.

Mindful of this context, the author of a new book implores us to discover ways to make our products and services (and the marketing thereof) more relevant and compelling by being different.

This is familiar ground. Seth Godin immediately comes to mind, with his purple cows and meatball sundaes. But Scott McKain takes a slightly different approach, starting with a trip to his hometown (in common with John Mellencamp) — Seymour, Ind. He visits some local businesses and notices the scant variation among the offerings of the various (though unvaried) chains of restaurants, insurance companies, whatever.

For some people, that's a good thing. A sales rep I knew confounded his more adventurous colleagues by insisting upon dining only at chains during their frequent road trips. One of his frustrated fellow travelers complained that they'd hit cities like Memphis and New Orleans with great local grub and this guy (senior in rank, alas) would invariably gravitate to the ubiquitous and familiar. But if you're not a chain, what can you do to survive and succeed?

Author Scott McKain writes "If you cannot find it within yourself to become emotional, committed, engaged, and yes, fervent about differentiation, then you had better be prepared to take your place among that vast throng of the mediocre who are judged by their customers solely on the basis of price. It is the singularly worst place to be in all of business. If you aren't willing to create distinction for yourself in your profession — and for your organization in the marketplace — then prepare to take your seat in the back, with the substantial swarm of the similar, where tedium reigns supreme.''

For many businesses, providing unambiguous homogeneity can a successful strategy, but McKain points out that being different is nearly always better; it's a competitive advantage, in fact, assuming that what's offered is resoundingly better and not just different. But what if you and your business are mediocre or unremarkable? You'll have to be honest and fearless. ''Good enough'' just isn't ''good enough'' any more, if it ever was.

In addition to some fairly interesting and surprising anecdotes (the author played a villain in a Werner Herzog film), he also provides a bunch of assessments to determine the most compelling — and marketable — aspects of your endeavor that will be worthy of attention and promotion.

Again, we've heard and read much of what McKain offers here, but his is a very solid presentation of a message that bears repetition. As things continue to tighten up, the path he illuminates may be the best way to survive.

published 2/09/09 in The Miami Herald

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