A few weeks ago, I found myself in Washington, D.C. and drove by an In-N-Out Burger, where the memories came flooding back. We don’t have any In-N-Outs here in the Philly area so I had to explain to my son that this was one of the few fast-food places where you could order a burger Animal-Style, get a 4×4, or even got your burger wrapped in lettuce.
That is, if you know about the “Secret Menu.” You can’t go into an In-N-Out and get a salad, dessert, or anything resembling a Value Meal. But if you know to ask, you can get your choice of four beef patties, with hand-leafed lettuce, tomato, spread, four slices of American cheese, with or without onions (the 4×4) or a mustard-cooked beef patty with pickle, extra spread and grilled onions (Animal Style).
In-N-Out Burger is one of the many examples that Harvard Professor Youngme Moon uses in her book, Different: Escaping the Competitive Herd. At first glance, some might say that the chain competes with freshness and burgers that aren’t frozen. And does it well, by the way. But those in the know would probably argue that it’s the secret menu that drives the loyalty of its customers.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how people and companies differentiate themselves from their competitors. I’m working with a client that differentiates itself in part by helping its customers identify their “purple cow,” what Seth Godin describes as a product or service that is worth making a remark about.
Being remarkable. That’s what Youngme Moon wants you to be. In her view, “the more diligently firms compete with each other, the less differentiated they can become, at least in the eyes of consumers.” She sees a lot of what she calls “artful packaging of meaningless distinctions as true differentiations,” making mountains out of molehills if you will.
True differentiation comes at the intersection of passion and comparative expertise, where you achieve your goal of selling to people who love your brand AND feel it’s the ONLY brand able to deliver what they want (or are looking for).
She sees a number of different ways to accomplish this goal. There are ”idea brands” where you rethink the entire value proposition in your category (think back to the great Dove commercial that showed what a model looked like pre-glamour shoot and, at the same time, got people thinking about beauty in a completely different way). Consider ”reverse-positioned” brands that go in completely different directions than you’d expect (think the stripped-down Google search page competing against its bigger, better, busier, noisier, flashier competitors). Think about brands like Cirque de Soleil (a circus but without the elephants) or the Simpsons (a cartoon, but for adults); and the hostile brands that focus on their passionate followers and could care less about the rest of you (think Apple and Ikea, which Professor Moon describes as a brand that has “discovered the cool of unapologetic contradition).
As someone who also writes a blog about simplicity, I particularly like the idea of the reverse-positioned brand where you take away what we expect but then give us what we don’t expect (or what we really care about). Eliminate but elevate.
Whether you’re a new consultant, a small business that’s starting out, trying to grow, or struggling to survive, and a frustrated job-seeker, I suggest you look at yourself the way consumers do. Do they see a competitive blur? How can you stand out? I urge you to read the book — it’s a fast read — but offer one of Professor Moon’s parting thoughts: Differentiation is not a tactic; it’s a way of thinking.
And that’s something you can sink your teeth into over at In-N-Out Burger as you think about what makes you different. Or as you read Different by Youngme Moon.
If you’re interested in purchasing either book, here are affiliate links: