Maybe you remember the old Jim Croce song that goes, “You don’t spit into the wind, you don’t tug on Superman’s cape . . . “ etc. The idea is that there are some things in life you just don’t do. Case in point. Last time I wrote (Marketing 101b), I talked about problems, needs, and wants . . . your product or service must solve a problem, fill a need, or satisfy a want, or you won’t have any customers.
OK, so I have this mentor in marketing (and most other things) who I knew . . . that’s right, I knew . . . was on my mailing list. But how was I to know the guy would actually read my stuff? He’s the teacher, I’m the pupil for cryin’ out loud. He already knows more than I do, so why would he? Well, go figure, he did.
The lesson here is simple. If you’re going to write about stuff in your mentor’s area of expertise, DON’T SEND IT TO HIM!! I think Jim Croce would agree.
Retribution was swift and sure. He was all over me like a cheap suit. How could I, he asked, engage in a marketing discussion and leave out the Holy Grail of marketing, “competitive advantage?” Of course, I tried to defend myself, but it was pointless. He was right. I knew he was right, and he knew I knew he was right. I narrowly escaped a trip to the woodshed by promising to set the record straight. So for a woodshed-induced discussion of “competitive advantage,” and with apologies to my friend and mentor Bad Bad Leroy Bill. please read below.
In my last posting (Marketing 101b), I pointed out that nobody’s going to buy your product or service unless it solves a problem, fills a need, or satisfies a want. After all, why would they? What possible reason would there be to buy any product or service if it doesn’t do one of those three things?
But there’s more to it than that. If your product or service solves a problem, fills a need, or satisfies a want but does it in a way that is indistinguishable from your competitors, what have you achieved? Not much. As far as the marketplace is concerned, you’re just an also-ran. You might as well be selling sand because in the eyes of your prospective customers, they can get the same thing you’re selling lots of other places. There’s no special reason they should buy from you versus all the others.
So you need that special reason for customers to choose you over your competitors. You need something to distinguish your product or service from everybody else’s. You need a “secret sauce.” In short, you need a “competitive advantage.” Whatever problem you’re trying to solve for your customers, you need to solve it better/faster/cheaper than your competitors. Your solution needs to be unique. It needs to be more elegant, more user-friendly, or more value-driven than everybody else’s solution. Likewise for filling needs or satisfying wants.
Now here’s the hard part. Your competitive advantage can’t just be lip service. It has to be genuine. You can’t just say your product or service is better than everyone else’s (although lots of people try to do just that). You have to demonstrate that your product or service is better in a way that’s convincing to your prospective customers. You may believe you have a superior product or service, but if your prospective customers don’t believe it, you’re still an also-ran, just one more in a sea of offerings that are more or less the same.
The competitive advantage is different for every company. A machine shop may be able to promise higher tolerances with fewer defects than anyone else. A wholesaler may be able to guarantee faster delivery times than its competitors. A software developer may be able to boast of efficiencies not possible with any other product. The list is endless, but you get the idea. The key is that your customers value the competitive advantage you offer, and believe you can deliver it dependably.
If you have a hard time figuring out your competitive advantage, ask your customers. They could be doing business with one of your competitors, but they have chosen to do business with you. Ask them why. They’ll be happy to tell you.
So what is your competitive advantage?