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Differentiation isn't a dirty word

Geoff Anderson back for another installment of the Technology Market Center Leader's blog. This time I am going to talk about the fundamental tool we have in Product Marketing Land to keep our products above the fray, and to avoid the dreaded "C" word (commoditization). Naturally, I am talking about differentiation. As a long time product manager, who does both the product management role as well as the product marketing function, I am responsible for defining products to develop and launch. Naturally, I use all the tools at my disposal to gather, sort, prioritize, and document the requirements for the development team to ensure that we have a product offering that stands out, and is not a "me too" offering.

But, all to often, I find that the concept of differentiation is lost on swaths of the organization. While it would seem to be an intuitive concept to those of us in marketing, we need to spread the word. The primary group that mis-interprets differentiation in product is Sales. I am sure that there are many sales people, and sales executives who get "differentiation", but translating from a concept to an actual instance of differentiation can be confusing, and frustrating for a marketer.

For a typical example, assume we have a product that is in a crowded market (lots of competitors, mature market, low barrier of entry). To differentiate ourselves, we develop a capability that is unique, is high value, and is attractive to a segment (or more than one segment). Naturally, this unique value proposition gives us a chance to stand above the noise floor, and to command a premium. Seems like a slam-dunk.

However, it becomes clear that sales isn't on board. They think it is too expensive. They think that they can't talk to customers about it because it is not a cheap (or free) option. And then they avoid mentioning it in cases aligned to the target segment. Sales targets are missed, and we all stand around wondering why we failed at this offering.

Combating this mentality is not easy, but it isn't impossible either. It does require some hands on experience to demonstrate the value. We also need to justify the price differential. Additionally, we need to pick a few cases to be directly part of the sales process, showing the team how to communicate the value of the differentiating feature or option. I have found that once they taste success, Sales will tear into it like a rabid wolf.

This means that you can't just launch a kick ass product with differentiation to spare. You need to wade into the trenches, and to lead the charge in the early adopter sales cases. Of course, occasionally you come across a sales person who gets it, and wants you to stay out of their way (differentiated options + high price tag = easier quota attainment).

Summary

The product management / product marketing role is more than just defining, and delivering world beating products with differentiation to raise your stature above the riff-raff, as well as creating insightful, impactful collateral and content to guide customers to your products. We need to take an active role, particularly early in the commercial phase, to evangelize, and get the word out about why the new product is better, and why customers would be fools to look elsewhere.

I think back to the "chicken" example in the Strategic Marketing of Technology course. No longer is it enough to have a steady stream of differentiators to keep upping the ante, we need to get into the melee and lead the charge.

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