Being different is easier than you think (but don’t tell anybody).

“Come again, this time in plain English?” said my poor baffled client. The biz-speak had escaped my lips before I’d even realised. You operate in a commoditised market place, I’d said. He hadn’t taken offence. For comprehension precedes offence-taking, and we hadn’t even got to that initial stage. So much for talking like you write. “People can’t tell your stuff from other people’s stuff,” I translated. “To them, it’s all just stuff. You think it’s different, but they don’t.” “But I don’t sell stuff,” he said pointedly, as if talking to a very slow learner, “we’re a service company.” “Like I said – stuff,” I replied, though rather less pointedly. And then I explained why his services are no different to a box of cornflakes.

Checking out the checkouts

Where do you shop? Me, I’m a Tesco man. Why? Because they check 1,000 prices every week so I don’t have to. And because their own-brand cornflakes – and bran flakes and chocolate-coated flakes with extra Type-2-diabetes-inducing sugar levels – are made by the same manufacturer as Asda’s, and Sainsbury’s and Waitrose’s. They’re commodities. The only difference is packaging and price. Except the prices are the same nowadays, so it’s down to the packaging – which is more than just the box. In the consumer’s mind, the difference is the look, the feel, the experience, the service, the story they tell themselves. Because there’s always a story. Successful established types shop at Waitrose. Sainsbury’s is for upwardly mobile professionals. Asda is for the cost-conscious lower-income bracket. Cornflakes, cornflakes, cornflakes. The only thing that matters is what you put on top of them.

Snap, crackle and pop

In a busy, competitive, crowded market place, you’ve got to stand out. You’ve got to have an angle, a story, a way into the customer’s imagination. Or in other words, your cornflakes have to taste better than the next person’s, even if they’re essentially the same. So how do you set yourself up as a cereal entrepreneur?
  1. Be different, though not so different that you’re filed away in the prospect’s mind as too specialised, too expensive or too eccentric. See what everybody else is saying, and take a different line. Tell your story in a left-of-field way that makes people sit up and take notice.
  2. Be a mind-reader – which is actually easier than it sounds. It’s just another way of saying ‘think like a reader’. What are they looking for? What problem are you solving?  What frame of mind are they in? What signals will they respond to?
  3. Be brutal – with yourself. Cut the waffle, reduce your ‘About Us’ web page to a couple of paragraphs, lose the company history. Stop gazing at your navel, and remember the plight of your prospect.
  4. Be realistic and honest. Don’t say you’ll deliver by midday tomorrow if you can’t. Don’t say you respond to emails within two hours, if that puts you under pressure. Don’t guarantee satisfaction unless you’re prepared to go all the way. Talk is cheap – until you have to pick up the pieces, and then it becomes very expensive indeed. Not delivering on a promise is twice as bad as not making it in the first place, as the client tumbles from positive, to neutral, to negative on the satisfaction graph.
  5. Be human. “I can’t put that into the bio,” said a client to me recently. He was referring to his first startup, aged eight: a gardening service for the horticulturally challenged. To him, it was embarrassing. To me, it showed a human side – a sweet little kid, moving, clipping and weeding – a world away from his rapidly expanding company in the City. But it was a way in for readers of his bio. It showed he was approachable, adaptable, friendly, helpful and not afraid to show his human side.
  6. Be funny. Remember that joke you told at the party that broke the ice? The one that gave you a warm, fuzzy feeling and an instant connection with your new best friend? You can use the same approach in business copy. Avoid dodgy humour and salacious stories, though. Instead, show that you’re not afraid to laugh – or at least, smile – at your own expense. It’s all part of being human (see last point).
  7. Be distinctive. Find a writing voice that speaks to people. Read aloud what you’ve written, because that’s how they’ll hear it in their head. If it sounds stilted and stuffy, that’s because it is. Try again. And if putting pen to paper or finger to keyboard causes you to lose your voice, try recording yourself instead. Do a sales pitch. Chat to an imaginary prospect. (Closing your eyes helps.) Now transcribe and watch the magic unfold on the page.
The bad news is that in a commoditised market place, it’s harder to stand out. The good news is that most people don’t make the effort. And the even better news is that it’s really not that difficult. With a bit of thought, planning and effort, you’ll be fresher, crunchier and more appetising than everybody else. It really is that simple – but keep it to yourself. Because if everybody’s different, nobody is.