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How We're Different from Our Competitors (A Marketing Story)

This lesson is a part of an audio course 10 Stories Great Leaders Tell by Paul Andrew Smith

The job of marketing is to explain how your product or service is different from your competitors. And marketers use all kinds of techniques to communicate that difference, like TV commercials and product demos, and samples you pick up in the grocery store.

But as a leader, whether you’re talking to a prospective customer, the investment community, or just helping the people in your department appreciate why your company’s product is better than your competition, your best tool is a story.

And here’s my favorite example. Sharad Madison is the CEO of the commercial cleaning company United Building Maintenance. They’re the ones that come in and clean your offices at night. Now when Sharad is trying to explain how his company is different from his competitors he often tells the following story about what he does when he acquires a new client.

He says when we take over a new contract we typically have a 30 day transition period. We take that time to go into the building in the middle of the night to see how they’re cleaning it now, to find out if they’re properly trained and have the right tools. For example, we recently took over the contract for the Verizon building in New Jersey. Now that’s a 1.7 million square foot property across multiple buildings. So we went in and found a guy vacuuming the carpet. Now it turns out he was using the same kind of residential quality vacuum cleaner you probably use at home. Now those hallways are 12 feet wide and over 1/2 a mile long. Can you imagine trying to clean the whole thing with the same machine you use at home? It could take a week and it probably still wouldn’t be very clean. Plus, that vacuum will have to be replaced every few months. Well, we ordered him a triple-wide industrial-strength vacuum cleaner that’ll do the job in less than half the time and last forever.

Well, then we went to another floor and we found someone shampooing those same carpets with a regular walk behind a squeeze bottle shampooer. Again, that could take all night just to shampoo that one floor. So we put him into a high-speed riding shampooer that could do the job in a fraction of the time with much better results. Plus, it gets the guy off his feet, so I have fewer workman’s comp issues and so does my client.

Well, then we got to the offices and started looking at the top of the file cabinets. And you could see half-moons swiped out on top of them and he said, I know exactly what that meant. Those cabinets were 5.5 feet tall and several of the people cleaning them were shorter than that. So it’s not that they’re lazy, they just literally couldn’t reach high enough to clean all the way to the back. So when we took over we gave them all these little plastic extension wands that they could reach all the way to the back with. Problem solved.

Now, compare that story to how Sharad might explain his points of differentiation if he was using one of the more typical features and benefits of marketing language. It’d sound something like this: you know what makes us different is that we equip our cleaners with triple wide industrial-strength vacuum cleaners, high speed riding shampooers, and extension wands for dusting, and that’s how we’re different.

Now that, of course, all is true, those are the facts, but the story is far more compelling because with the story the listener can see, in their mind’s eye, all those pieces of equipment in use. They can see the guy going from the cheap vacuum cleaner to the triple wide one. They can picture the guy riding around on a shampooer like the Zamboni driver on an ice skating rink. They can see very clearly someone easily cleaning all the way to the back of a tall, dusty cabinet with a plastic extension wand.

Okay, here are some tips to help you craft your own marketing story. Ask the following questions, and you might need to get some input from the sales or marketing, or research departments to find good answers. All right, first, think of a time that you or someone else used one of your competitor’s products or services and had a bad experience. What was that experience like? And how does it differ from an experience with your product?

Okay, second, think of some of the most positive customer success stories at your company. What was so fabulous about them that isn’t likely to happen with your competitor’s products?

And last, and this is my favorite, talk to some of your customers who used to use your competitor’s products, but have switched to you. What about their experience made them switch? And what’s it like now with your product?

Okay, choose one of those experiences and craft a story around it that illustrates the difference between your product or service and your competitors. It could simply be two stories told back to back. A bad customer experience with your competitor’s product and a good customer experience with your product. That’s your marketing story.

Alright. In the next lesson, we’ll turn our attention to a more personal story about you. A leadership philosophy story.

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Written by

Paul Andrew Smith