One of the most interesting and scary courses I took during my JD/MBA career is consumer psychology.  I learned a great framework for describing how I interact and reinforce my purchasing habits.

One of the points that really hit home to me is about differentiation.  It seems like a lot of my entrepreneurial friends work hard to make new points of differentiation that the consumer can see between themselves and others.  My education hammered home the importance of differentiation avoiding commoditization.  My friend Stormy started with such differentiation in mind.

The strange piece is that the consumer only need perceive a difference between you and the competition (think store-brand vs. brand name medications).  That difference need not be tangible or apparent.  It can simply evoke a feeling.  And the crazy part is that consumers want you to reinforce that difference.

What this means is that a company can take an internal look at itself, an external look at its competition and then look for differences.  These differences can be thrown at a panel of people and see which ones don’t stink (ie which ones people see as smoke and mirrors).  These differences can be highlighted in marketing campaigns to consumers.  The more (frequency and length) this message reaches consumers, the more accepted it becomes (familiarity breeds acceptance).

I see this play a lot in ads that play on the past.  Ads in this category often use trust, parent’s habits and experience.  Consumers value these ideals, but the organizations didn’t change to get them.  They’ve just communicated them to the consumer as part of their offering.

Following this recipe, the company has now taken an intrinsic part of its product or organization — without change — and turned it into a competitive advantage because the consumer sees it as such.  I was shocked not because I knew a good marketer could do this, but because the recipe was so easy.