What makes me SO special? THE DIFFERENTIATION STRATEGY

By Rina Mc Kellar for SA Hairdressers Journal
It is a really simple question…. and the answer should be just as simple. It should roll off the tongue. It should be second nature. It should be easy. But it’s often one that causes most of us to stop dead in our tracks. It’s a question that makes many squirm on both a personal and professional level. On an individual level this type of conversation is reserved mainly for interviews at boardroom tables or perhaps flirted with on a first date. But more than that, I doubt it gets much more airtime.

In the business world it should be a much more comfortable topic. Surprisingly it often isn’t. For many a business owner it only leads to ummn’s and aah’s or perhaps a spout of clichéd slogans like “because we are fantastic” or “we deliver the best service”. But is this really enough? Is this kind of answer enough to set your business apart from the many other salons out there?

The deeper question is: What makes you unique? What makes you different to your competitor? What puts you in your own league? What sets you apart? And how would your answer differ from that of everyone else?

One of the most common differentiation strategies used in the retail industry is PRICE. An easy example to illustrate this and where It is clear to see is in our country’s home furnishing or decor industry – in years gone by, this segment was earmarked only for the rich. Cheaper furniture brands existed but certainly not with the same design flair as for the upper echelons of society. Enter companies like Mr Price Home in the late nineties and suddenly this sector saw an explosion and a big-bang-boom. Interior design was no longer just for the opulent. Beautiful contemporary products were made affordable through a strong differentiation strategy: price. Suddenly everyone had access to a previously elite offering at affordable prices. Other brands evolved and today there is no shortage of pretty linens, funky desks and quirky prints at any price level. Pricing formed a part of their marketing ethos and is an integral part of their brand. Mr Price is so unashamedly proud of this differentiation pillar that it is gloriously displayed in their name. CLEVER. Very Clever.

Obviously with each strategy, there are pros and cons. For example, lower pricing is almost always associated with poorer quality, so brands have had to factor how to turn this to their advantage. So words like “low cost” creep in instead of “cheap” to make it more palatable and marketable and less crass; think low cost housing, low cost airlines etc. There is now an entire category of “low cost” anythings. And yet, while everyone is always looking for a good deal, if something is too cheap, a great deal of scepticism usually lurks not far behind. The old adage “you get what you pay for” has been doing the rounds for decades and will continue long into the future. There is still a deep ingrained belief that marries expensive with supreme quality, service and delivery.

Another downside is that cheaper pricing is also not always defendable. There will always be a competitor willing to do it for less. Lower pricing is therefore not the only differentiation pillar to build an entire strategy on. It can indeed form part of a formular, but it cannot be the sole distinction factor. It is too easily attacked and a good strategy should be able to stand through many a storm.

While a pricing strategy may not be completely common to the hair industry in this country, it does highlight the clear distinction between retailers operating in the same area. And perhaps this clarity of a separate industry can be applied. Saying that however, it is also very clear that with brands like Supercuts in the UK there is room for everyone at the table and their differentiation through price is neatly and appetizingly defined as “no frills”. Posters in shop windows display apt slogans like “on trend on budget”. They are defining their difference and owning their space.

The truth is if you asked the custodians of brands like Mr Price or Supercuts about what makes them special or different, they will know without a doubt. They operate this ethos throughout their branches and divisions. It is core to their brand. It’s what sets them apart. It’s what makes them special and different. They will not ummn and aah. They know their answer.
So…. What makes YOU different?

For many creatives (and not just those involved with hair) their answer quite simply lies in their own individual creativity and uniqueness and personality. But here is the conundrum: how does that creativity get translated into solid business practices and marketing activities. How does it become a business pillar or ethos?

For the above mentioned brands the differentiation chosen is not merely to be different, it is how they operate. It becomes ingrained in business practice. It is how they market themselves and how they communicate their offering. It forms part of advertising campaigns. It forms part of their day to day lives.

The real challenge is to build your business on more than just the differentiation of only your creativity and artistic style. Like with pricing, we saw it is not the only thing. So what else can you do that sets you apart and that gives you a guaranteed place at the table for the long run?

Perhaps take some time to jot down a few ideas that make you different. Think about the things that makes your brand/ your salon stand out and what makes it successful. But then answer the following questions:

1. Is it defendable? i.e. can it be easily copied? e.g. a new service offering like head massages
2. Is it dependable? i.e. Are you reliant on ONE thing or ONE person?
3. Is it sustainable? i.e. Is it a winning formula that can still be around in 20 years?

It may not all fall into place at the right time, but for majority of business owners the answers are in their heads. They intrinsically know but aren’t able to articulate it succinctly. Once you’ve grappled with a few ideas and come to some acceptable solutions ask yourself the following questions:

1. How does your differentiation form part of your business and marketing strategy?
2. How does it help you get new clients or retain your old ones?
3. How does it help to grow your business?
4. How do you use your difference to get ahead of your competitor?

It’s one thing knowing your difference and your uniqueness but it is another to use it to propel your business to the next level.

Looking at all of these things in isolation can be daunting, but think about it like puzzle pieces. Nice big puzzle pieces or building blocks that come together to form a picture. In this series on marketing we will look at those different pieces and how putting them together can help formulate your marketing and business picture or strategy so that you can set objectives, achieve your goals and be what you dreamt of being when you first started out. Here’s to unlocking the magic of marketing.