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Differentiation : The Quintessence of Strategy

Dr. Uditha Liyanage

The discourse on differentiation in the wake of increasing competition and
competitive convergence must be placed within the context of the strategy
making process. Strategy is often mistakenly equated with the formulation of
a vision and a mission and, on occasion with programs of action. They are
all associated with strategy but are not strategy per se. Strategy, in essence
is taking a unique stand in a strategically selected market or industry. In
taking a strategic position, an organization does not attempt to be better than
competition, but rather be different to competition. Doing different things
and doing things differently, constitute the twin sources of differentiation.
They call for the adoption of business models and strategic initiatives that
are markedly different to those of competition.
Selection of new and unoccupied market spaces, and corresponding cognitive
spaces or categories in the minds of consumers, is the first way in which an
organization can become uniquely different, and not merely superior to
competition. Finding a distinctive and valued point(s) of difference vis a vis
competition in an existing market space and mental category is the second
way in which a market offering can become different.
A brand is a differentiated entity which is a construct that exists in the
consumers mind in the form of identifiers (names and marks) and signifiers
(propositions and metaphors). The brand which provides value for and
value of customers through a synergistic value delivery system becomes
unique and indeed, strategic.

1. Introduction
Strategy is about seeing things that matter to an organization, in as much as it is about
doing things which would lead to getting the desired results. Strategic modes of
doing and planning must be preceded by strategic thinking. As Henry Mintsberg
opined, the latter is vital, the former, not as much. Importantly, thinking about the
way forward for an organization which entails making judgments, is underpinned by
perception. As Edward de Bono (2008) points out, our perceptions, indeed, our world
view, shapes our judgments.

All this points to the centrality of seeing and thinking that must necessarily precede
judging and planning/doing. However, it appears that the accent very often is on
putting together a set of plans, spelling out a series of steps that will expectedly take
the organization to a desired future. The underlying assumptions, beliefs and, values,
which together fashion the way we perceive that which is real around us, leading to
the construction of our own realities, are often unquestioned and unchallenged. This
proclivity, not only leads to superficial thinking and incremental action, but also
results in what may be termed, competitive convergence. This happens when surface
realities of a situation which meets the eyes of all, form the basis for strategic action.
Conventional wisdom becomes the common bedrock for concerted action, which
inevitably leads to industry and market actors becoming increasingly similar, only
different, at best in appearance, rather than substance; trivia rather than value.
Differentiation, a concept that is not very well understood, nay practised by many,
could well be the antidote to the growing malady of me-tooism. A sustainable way
to be meaningfully different vis a vis competition the quintessence of the
differentiation concept, is the basis for staying ahead of competition with exceptional
results that are more than a peg above the industry norm.
It is important to recognize that mere knowledge and an increasing quantum of it in the
form of facts and figures will not help an organization to find its pivotal point of
difference. Indeed, it does not take an Einstein to recognize that imagination based on
knowledge is more powerful than knowledge devoid of imagination. Clearly,
conventional thinking the thinking that makes patent commonsense, is the enemy
of strategic thinking, which, as we noted, is underpinned by divergence and
uniqueness, rather than convergence and unity.

2. What is not Strategy

The intent of strategy is mistakenly reckoned to be an attempt to be the best in-class.
This misconception, as Porter (1996) points out makes actions predicated on it,
fundamentally flawed. The principal reasons as to why this is the case will be
examined later.
Seeing strategy as action is also flawed. Our strategy is to merge and . to
double our research and development expenditure are commonplace expressions
which tend to pass-off as strategy.
Seeing strategy as vision is another misconception that dominates the thinking of
many organizations and acts as a bar to deep-going strategic thinking. Our strategy is
to be number 1, and to provide superior returns to shareholders are expressions
of equating strategy with vision.

Seeing strategy as Mission is a fourth error of strategic thinking. Our strategy is to

provide superior products that will and to advance technology for the larger
benefit of mankind are manifest expressions of thinking of strategy in terms of
Strategy is none of these. Treating strategy as vision, mission, and action makes the
fundamental mistake of taking association for essence and substance. Social
responsibility is associated with social well-being, but social responsibility is not the
same as social well-being!!

3. Strategy as Position
In essence, strategy is not about setting aspirations of a desired standing. Strategy is
neither about plans that delineate a series of sequential steps that need to be taken to
reach the desired standing. Clearly, strategy is not about the two oft-cited questions,
where do you want to go, and how do you get there? They are typically planning
questions which should not be confused with vital strategyquestions.
Strategy is not about the Standing of an organization, nor is it about the steps it should
take. Clearly, strategy is about the stand, the position the organization should take in
moving forward. Taking a strategic position, a stand will then help the organization to
reach the desired standing by following a series of steps, leading to it.
The stand that should be taken is about the position taken by an organization on, and
in an industry/market. That is to say, the selection of a market or a segment of it as the
organizations operating space, indeed battlefield, as it were, is the first stand that
must be taken. This should be followed by the stand that is taken by the organization
within the selected market space. The key questions here are, who are you? and
what do you stand for? .
Importantly, these twin questions should be asked first and foremost, and then, only
then, should one ask the oft-asked where do you want to go, and how do you get
there, questions. Putting the planning cart before the strategic horse is a blunder that
bedevils many an organization in its attempt to hone strategic action.

Figure 1 : Three Correlates of Strategy




SL Tourism:
As a case in point, Sri Lanka Tourism (SLT) has, from time to time, articulated its
desired standing of being a leading tourist destination in Asia, and attracting a million
tourists per year. In order to reach this desired standing, SLT can develop countryspecific steps. For example, we will develop program X for the U.K. market,
program Y for the Indian market and program Z for ------- , and so on. These
programs of action, indeed steps, it is expected, will lead to achieving the desired
Now, the pivotal strategy-question is yet to be asked. Standing and steps are in place.
Indeed, what about the stand SLT ought to take. In an attempt to develop a stand that
should, by definition be unique, SLT articulated its position as, Land like no other.
As was said, the strategic position or stand that an organization should first take is
about the operating space or battlefield. Land like no other does not entail a
position taken on the market, to begin with. What is the particular context in which
the stand is taken? Consequently, the declared stand does not spell the position SLT
has taken in the selected operating space either.
The question that needs to be asked first about, Land like no other, is, where is this
land, and then what makes it unique? Perhaps, Asia or Island provides the requisite
contexts. Then, what does this Land like no other provide? What does it stand for?
Is it to have (eg. shopping), to do (eg. activity) to relate (eg: MICE offerings); to see
(eg: nature and artifacts) or to be (eg: sun and sand, and wellness)?
Taking a stand requires the examination of the opportunities that exist in each of the
above domains, and the natural comparative advantage and the designed competitive
advantage Sri Lanka can and could enjoy in relation to its direct competitors. A close
examination of the possible value propositions for SLT, suggests that a unique
combination of being and seeing that is located in a narrow geographical space may
well provide a robust stand for SLT. An additional attribute of authenticity that is
increasingly valued by target markets may well enrich the proposition. The six key

words of Asias authentic being-seeing compact island clearly posits the strategic
position, the stand of SLT. It can now, indeed only now, look at the desired standing,
and of course the steps that ought to be taken to attain the standing of its choice.

4. Position and Differentiation

The stand or position that an organization takes on and in a market/industry, it was
observed is the essence of strategy. Now, the stand of the organization ought to be
unique. If it is me-too in nature, then such a stand is not strategic. Hence, being
clearly different to competition, either by selecting a new and unoccupied market or a
segment of it, or in a fundamental and meaningful way, being different to competition
in an already occupied market, should characterize the stand of the organization. The
striking equivalence between the organizations strategic position and the concept of
differentiation is thus patent.
In taking a position, the organization must carefully figure out the source of
differentiation. The vital question is; what do you stand for, and ipso facto, what do
you not stand far? In sum, taking a stand necessarily entails making sacrifices and
trade offs. As Porter (1996) argues, Trade-offs are essential to strategy. They create
the need for choice and purposefully limit what a company offers. For instance,
Neutrogena soaps position was built on being, kind to the skin. With a large detail
salesforce calling on dermatologists, Neutrogenas marketing strategy looks more like
a drug companys than a soap makers. In choosing this position, Neutrogena said no
to the deodorants and skin softeners that many customers desire in their soap. It gave
up the large volume potential of selling through supermarkets and using price
promotions. It sacrificed manufacturing efficiencies to achieve the soaps desired
attributes (Porter, 1996). Strategic trade offs help the organization to be consistent,
not contradictory with regard to its image and reputation. It also avoids the
performance of disparate activities and the use of different resources and equipment,
thus helping the organization to be coherent and synergistic in its activities.

5. Differentiation as Divergence
The underpinnings of differentiation are in the universal phenomenon of divergence.
Divergence occurs when the whole breaks up into stand-alone parts that begin to
develop their own entities, and then identities. Ries and Trout (1986) posit that
divergence is the least understood and most powerful force in the world. They argue
that what has happened in nature biological divergence, is happening in the world of
products and services. They add that the interplay of evolution and divergence
provides a model for understanding both the universe, and the universe of market
offerings. If it werent for divergence, evolution by itself would have created a world
populated by millions of single-cell prokaryotes the size of dinosaurs!

In as much as divergence is a biological phenomenon, it is also a social phenomenon.

The fragmentation of whole socio-cultural units into sub-cultures and the further
divergence of sub-cultures into smaller groupings are commonplace in social settings,
across the globe. Naisbitt (2000) argues that such social divergence is more, rather
than less, pronounced in the wake of globalization.
More importantly, for our
purpose of understanding, divergence that takes place in the psychological sphere is
clearly germane.
The proliferation of concepts, from the larger to the smaller is the way in which we
comprehend increasingly finer aspects of reality. The infant who encounters round
objects, over time forms the concept of a ball and mentally names it as such. Later
the concept, mental category or frame of reference called ball is further divided into
sub-categories and so on. The acquisition of knowledge, indeed the psychological
process of gnosis occurs in this fashion. There are essentially two bases on which
mental categories diverge and are proliferated.

Figure 2 : Sub-categories based on Form






The Form of the sensed object, its features or attributes is the basis on which the
whole mental category is diverged into smaller sub-categories.

Figure 3 : Sub-categories based on Purpose






The above sub-categories are primarily based on the purpose for which the object is
used. However, the inter-play between purpose and form in the construction of subcategories should not be missed. Importantly, not only physical objects that are sensed
by the individual are categorized as described above, but mental constructs such as
peace, humility and freedom are categorized in our minds based on features or
characteristics and their purpose or functionality. We will see later, how the
psychological process of divergence or the construction of specific mental categories
provide a robust basis for strategically differentiating ones products and services from
those of its competitors.

6. What Differentiation is Not

Importantly, differentiation is not operational effectiveness (OE). Simply put, OE is

about, doing the same things better than competitors. It is all about being superior
to competition on the self-same parameters as those of the competitors. This ought to
be clear now because the vital equivalence between a strategic position and
differentiation was discussed earlier. It is about taking a unique stand, and not a better

Table : Superiority vs Differentiation

Scale ( 1 10)
Key Purchase




Key purchase determinants (KPD) are those parameters that the customer would
consider in making a choice between competitors X and Y.
In this illustration, competitor B is only better than competitor A, but not different to
A. Here, it is assumed that both competitors do not do things differently either, which,
if done, may give a competitor a cost advantage. Importantly, best management
practices, benchmarking, outsourcing, TQM, Six Zigma and a host of such popular
management formula, typically makes only one better than the other. There is
increasingly, competitive convergence, and zero-sum competition orders the state of
play in the competitive arena. As players compete with one another on the same
parameters, they continually get better, pushing the threshold of productivity. But
soon they reach the productivity frontier and find their competitive positions
weakening. The point is that operational effectiveness is necessary but not sufficient.
Companies that have competed successfully on the basis of OE over an extended
period find that staying ahead of rivals, gets harder every day. The most obvious
reason for that is the rapid diffusion of best practices. Competitors can quickly imitate
management techniques, new technologies, input improvements, and superior ways of
meeting customers needs. The most generic solutions those that can be used in
multiple settings diffuse the fastest, resulting in competitive convergence (Porter,
1996). Interestingly, many Japanese companies which competed on the basis of OE
two or three decades ago, learnt that OE is good but not good enough. The continued
excellence of some Japanese companies and the demise of others could well be
explained in terms of the strategic importance of transcending OE and embracing
differentiation as not just doings things better, but doing different things or things

Operational effectiveness is about doing the same things better. Operational

efficiency, on the other hand is, doing the same things faster and cheaper. The
previous example of waning Japanese superiority, could also be explained in terms
operational efficiency. Operational effectiveness relates to providing better value than
competitors, while, operational efficiency relates to being faster and cheaper, not by
doing things differently as in the adoption of a different business model, but by doing
the same things done by competitors in the same way. This is not sustainable nor does
it produce exceptional results.

(Value) Effectiveness (being better)

(Cost) Efficiency (being cheaper)

The challenge posed to organizations is to find the sweet spot, and continue to
occupy it in the wake of changing competitive offerings and customer needs, while
acquiring the requisite competencies to fill the sweet spot which is created by the
gaps that arise out of the convergence of customer needs, competitive offerings, and
organizational competencies.

Figure 4: Finding the Sweet Spot




Source: Hooley et al (2004)


7. Keys to Differentiation

How could an organization be different? Indeed this could be the wrong question to
ask at the outset. The question where could you be different has to be raised first.
From where to how, this is a vital strategic sequel.
Clearly, where to be different is about markets and customers, while how to be
different is about products and programs.
New Categories:
Where to be different? The challenge for the organization is to carve out unoccupied
market space, and then, form new cognitive space (or mental categories) imaginatively
(non-conventionally), and be different, indeed unique. For instance, Coke did not
serve the existing soft drinks market, but it created a new category called colas when
it first entered the market. In like manner, Apple did not serve the existing computer
market, but created a new category within it. The same is true of McDonalds, and
Marlboro and a host of great brands that belong to the short list of the most valued
global brands. Indeed, they started off with zero market size and share.
Creating new sub-categories from well established larger categories has to be
reviewed from the point of view of psychological divergence referred to in pages
five and six. Metaphorically, the task is to create white balls or cricket balls
cognitive spaces out of the larger balls category. This construction of new mental
categories have met with great success when it has been done with the full cognizance
of the process of conceptualization of the consumer, rather than as an attempt to
impose upon the consumer, categories that have been contrived by organizations
according to their internally driven, convenient product classifications.
The 20-20 IPL cricket format is arguably a new mental sub-category that belongs to
the larger cricket category. In fact, the sub-category that has been constructed via
the new format may well be called sportainment. This form or feature-based subcategorization is further enriched by purpose-based categorization of a one-sitting
game, where one would typically switch on the television set when the first ball is
bowled, and switch it off and move out of the sitting posture, only when the last ball
has been bowled. Importantly, the reduction of thirty overs from the popular fifty over
format is perhaps at the threshold of not losing the very character of the game. A
further reduction in the number of overs, say to fifteen will run the risk of losing the
essential character of the game of cricket.
The 20-20 game, because of its sportainmant and its one-sitting appeals, has the
potential to compete with the likes of basket ball, rugby and socer. The commercial
opportunity that has loomed as a result, is not difficult to discern.

The thesis of Blue Ocean Strategy advanced by Kim and Mauborgne (2005) has, as its
essence, the creation of new categories and market spaces (blue oceans) rather than
fiercely competing in markedly populated categories, leading to win-lose situations, as
signified by bloody red oceans. The examples of Body Shop, Yellow tail wine, and
South West Airlines amply illustrate the wisdom of value innovation. In this regard,
strategies that Ceylon Tea, Ceylon Cinnamon and Ceylon Sapphire ought to pursue
have to be carefully worked out. Here, the way forward perhaps is not to pursue
strategies in the existing market spaces, but rather, to develop innovative strategies on
the existing market space.

Existing Categories:
Having examined the strategic imperatives and the possibility of creating new market
spaces, and then the associated mental categories, if organizations find such an
endeavour difficult or inappropriate, then they must next attempt to find the strategic
Point(s) of Difference (POD) within existing market spaces and mental categories in
order to be meaningfully and uniquely different.
As described by Tybout and Sternthal (2005), the POD is the anti-thesis of the Points
of Parity (POP), which are the dominant and defining characteristics of the existing
category, at large. The POD, in essence provides the identity of a particular market
entity in the category. It stands for something of value to the customer. The POP is
the quality of the crowd, and the POD sets the entity apart from the crowd, and
gives it an identify. Here, it should be noted that the number of entities that exist in a
category in a given physical or virtual market space may be large, but the number of
entities that get into the consumers cognitive space is limited. Ries and Trout (1986)
in this context refer to short ladders in the mind. Our mental categories are not
crowded, lest we become confused when we have to pick one entity over the other.
Simplicity is the principle of the mind when it comes to owning entities in
particular categories, so much so, Ries and Trout called, owning a word in the
consumers mind, the greatest marketing principle!
One way in which a POD can be established is to take the Against position. 7 Up
took the un-cola position as its POD.
Avis took the we are No.2 position, vis a vis Hertz. Interestingly, in Sri Lanka the
local brand of paracetamol, Paracetol, attempted to become cheaper than Panadol, the
market leader. The differentiation-question here is whether they were doing things
differently in a sustainable way through the adoption of a business model that clearly
contrasted with that of Panadol? If it did have such a model, then it is a case of
differentiation. If not, the question could be asked whether it could not be different in
terms of value differentiation by appealing to the moral sense of the Sri Lankan
consumer by presenting the message of buy Sri Lankan Products in an emotive way.

The lower price, accompanied by the emotive appeal could well be a potent
combination in the eyes of the consumer.
The POD must have four distinct qualities. First, it must stand out from the category,
the dominant POPs. It must be distinctive. Second, the POD must have a distinction
with a difference! The difference must be meaningful to the consumer, it must mean,
value. The POD must be desirable. Third, the distinctive and desirable POD must be
deliverable. It must be doable in terms of the capability of the organization.
Fourthly, and importantly, the POD must be sustainable and inimitable at least in the
medium term. It must be defensible. These four distinct qualities of the POD will
tantamount to a differentiated offering in a given market space and mental category.

8. Selecting a POD
Simply put, there are two types of PODs. They are value and cost based PODs.
Value-based PODs are again of two essential types. They are value for me, and
value of me genre. (Liyanage, 2003). Value for me is when the consumer asks
the questions, what it does for me? (functional value), and what it does to me?
(experiential value). On the other hand, in value of me, the product is a symbol
that signifies and not a performing object as is the case with value for me. Here,
the product helps its customer to relate (relational value or what it does with me?);
and communicate, (social value or what it says about me?), and helps the consumer
to actualize (psychological value or what it says to me?).

Figure 5: Liyanage Value Pyramid


Value of me


Value for me


Source: Smith B, and Raspin P. (2008) and Liyanage U. (2003)


The POD may be located in either the value for me or value of me domains.
Moreover, within the two domains, the POD may be found in any one or more of the
delineated value types. For instance, a simple product like Toothpaste may be
differentiated in terms of functional value (what it does for me in terms of its
functionality) or as experiential value (the experience of the flavor or foaming
quality), relational (my peers, membership group uses it), social value (white teeth
and fresh breath and being attractive in the eyes of others) or psychological value (the
natural, non-synthetic product that reinforces my personal value system and my sense
of self-worth).

Figure 6: Finding the POD





The task, as discussed, is to first find the Frame of Reference (FOR) or the mental
category and then the POD within it. The preceding delineation of the type of value based POD was centred around the what of the above Figure . Needless to say, it
has to be seen in relation to a particular consumer profile (who) and a particular
occasion or context (when) in which the consumer is located in the use of the product.



Towards a Brand

The strategic identification of the FOR, and within it, the isolation of the POD(s) is the
first step towards the formation of a brand, because the FOR and the POD together,
will give the market entity a distinctive brand identity. It is in this context that we can
now lay bare the anatomy of the differentiated brand.

Figure 7 : The Anatomy of a Brand






Source: Liyanage Uditha (2003)

Names of the brand and its distinctive marks that cannot be vocalized, together
constitute the brands identifiers. The words or propositions, and the images or
metaphors are the signifiers of the brand. The identifiers help recognize the brand
among its category members, while the signifiers help build the vital mental
associations and the reputation of the brand, which again differentiates it from those in
the same FOR or category. Hence, the dictum of Ries and Trout that owning a word
in the consumers mind as the greatest marketing principle may be comprehensively
recast to read: Owning a word-image schema in the consumers mind set, as the
most potent accomplishment in marketing. The mind set that is referred to, is in fact

the FOR, while the mental Schema referers to the system of PODs and inter-related
mental associations that characterize the brand in the consumers mind set. Moreover,
not owning a set of words (anti-schema) is key to strategic branding.

Brand Schema of Volkswagen Beetle

Fun to drive

Neat colors

Lime green

Easy to park

Volkswagen Beetle

Good winter car

German Car

Low sticker

Good gas
Good traction
40 mpg
30 mpg

Source: Giep Franzen, (2001)


Brand Positioning is, in essence the FOR, the POD, and the associated Mental
Schema that constitute the differentiated brand in the consumers-mind. It must be
reiterated that the brand is construct in the mind of the consumer. It exists in here in
our minds, rather than that out there in the physical marketplace or the virtual
market space.
10. Predicates of Brand Positioning
Importantly, the Brand positioning that was discussed in the preceding sections must
be predicated on three key bases.

Figure 8 : 4 Ps of Strategic Position




The Value Perimeter refers to the selection of battlefield or market space that was
discussed earlier. This is industry / market selection based on the convergence of
market opportunity and organization capability.
Value Position refers to the generic strategies that ought to be selected for the brand.
Figure 9 : Source and Scope of Competitive Advantage

Value Plus

Broad Scope

Narrow Scope

Cost Minus

Value Plus refers to the unique value that differentiates the offering from those that
compete with it. Cost Minus is the cost advantage the organization enjoys as a result
of doing things differently, through the adoption of a unique and sustainable
business model. The particular source of competitive advantage, either value or cost
based, must now be directed at a broad area of the selected market (value perimeter) or
a newer segment of it. Hence, as Figure 9 illustrates, there are, in essence four
strategic options available to an organization, based on which, it can identify its
strategic Value Position.
Thirdly, brand Value Positioning is predicated on a strategic Value Proposition. This
is the unique combination of value and price variables of the offering. For instance,
the value proposition of Ikea is : Young, first time or price-sensitive buyers who want
stylish, spaceefficient and scalable furniture, and accessories at very low price
points (Porter, 2008).
The point is that the Brand Positioning statement is predicated on a strategic thinking
process, and is not put together based on a casual analysis of the market. Importantly,
the movement from market to mind in the development of a Brand Positioning, makes
the positioning both robust and meaningfully differentiated from others.

11. Value delivery System


Brand Positioning that has been strategically discovered, designed and then developed
has now to be delivered. If a number of inter-locking factors in a value delivery
system (VDS) do not come together synergistically, then the strategic positioning
cannot be executed. The example of the VDS of the Southwest Airlines illustrates the
nature and structure of the VDS that is pivotal to the delivery of the brand promise.

Figure 10 : Southwest Airlines VDS



Source: Porter M, (2008)

The above illustration points to the fact that the differentiated Brand Position
underpinned by a unique VDS makes it difficult for a competitor to imitate the brand

offering. The case for built-in branding, as opposed to bolt-on branding is readily
made here. (Liyanage, 2007)

12. Conclusion
Differentiation is the essence of strategy. Differentiation is about being meaningfully
different to its competitors, not just better than its competitors. The adoption of a
unique stand or strategic position based on a new market space or finding a unique
POD in an existing category is the key to differentiation.
Becoming operationally effective and efficient may well be necessary for an
organization to stay ahead, but it is not sufficient for it to beat competition.
The selection of the FOR and the POD cannot be done in isolation. A clear
identification of market scope/space or the value perimeter is the first predicate. It is
followed by the development of a strategic value position, followed by a deep-going
value proposition. A brand position, so developed will help organizations become
strategically differentiated plus operationally effective and efficient, which will make
it thrive in the marketplace, not merely survive.


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