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In a world where everything is commoditized, the key to success becomes DIFFERENTIATION. That's becoming more difficult to achieve, and one of the reasons is that it's relatively easy to put up a Web site....

An entrepreneur in Atlanta was looking to launch a subscription-based dental plan. A search for "Dental Plans, Fee Based, Atlanta" resulted in 82,000 hits. There were major competitors and start-ups. Looking at subscription fees, they were all about the same. Of course, most of the plans work with the same providers and the savings are the same as well. So what's going to make this entrepreneur's plan stand out and succeed?
Perhaps the biggest differentiation in building a business is service. That retains customers, gets them to buy again, and inspires them to become Apostles for you. But what kind of differentiation helps you acquire customers in the first place if your product or service appears to be a commodity?
You can differentiate with your OFFER. Unusual guarantees are differentiating. If your competitors are offering 30 day guarantees and yours is 120 days, yours stands out. Lifetime guarantees are even more clutter-busting.
If your product or service is a commodity, your offer may involve a tie-in to a product, service, or institution that stands by itself. Partnering with a Tiffany or Sharper Image could make a big difference in your success in acquiring customers.
You may also want to consider partnering with a nonprofit and donating a portion of revenue from every new customer to that nonprofit. That puts a "good guy" spin on the company, and it is differentiating– but it won't necessarily increase response rates. A test we did several years ago for software relating to charitable deductions and the promise of contributions to one of three charities for a subscription did not move the needle.
MEDIA utilization may be differentiating in a few senses. Obviously, if you are in media that your competitors aren't using, you stand out. Again, that doesn't mean higher response – sometimes when you pioneer new media you're reaching your audience out of context.
Media WEIGHT certainly differentiates. The question is what does it do to cost per acquired customer? If not handled smartly, it can skyrocket acquisition costs– but some marketers, like MBNA with credit cards, use the weight to lower their acquisition costs.
So what does our entrepreneur in Atlanta do to differentiate his new Dental Plan? It surely will not involve media weight, nor a tie-in with a Tiffany-type company. There won't be a sweepstakes, nor an unusual guarantee. Ah, marketing's real work begins.

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Lee Marc Stein is a direct marketing consultant and copywriter with over 40 years experience. He has developed and executed direct marketing programs for a wide variety of marketers in the publishing, insurance and financial services, nonprofit, technology, and business-to-business arenas. Current clients include Effectiveness Solutions Research, Entertainment Publications, Long Island Children’s Museum, National Grants Conferences, Rickard List Marketing, Travelers Insurance, and a number of direct response agencies.

As a direct response agency executive, Lee worked with companies like Chase, Colonial Penn Auto Insurance, Dial Corporation, Hertz, Mead Johnson, The Money Store, and U.S. Airways. He also held marketing management positions at Standard & Poor’s, BusinessWeek, and McGraw-Hill Information Systems Company.

Lee taught at NYU and Hofstra, and has spoken at 100+ industry conferences. He was a Founder of the Long Island Direct Marketing Association, and is currently on the Board of Directors of the Direct Marketing Association of Long Island.