Differentiate Or Die In A Downturn

Differentiate your businessIt wasn’t so hard to skate by when all ships were buoyed, when everyone was flush with cash. You didn’t have to work so hard to show you were the best. Or at least better than others. You just had to be good enough to take a big enough piece of the pie to get by.

Not any more (though, honestly, that’s never been my approach anyway).

When money gets tighter, people get pickier. Which means, if want to continue to not only survive, but thrive, you’re going to need to dig a bit more deeply into the differentiation well and publicly showcase why you are the woman, man or business that people should be handing their money over to.

Perfect example. Walking down the block looking for a place to grab lunch with my wife on a weekday, we passed 7 or 8 restaurants and every single one was close to being empty. Then we poked our heads into the local pub. We’d never been there before. And, it was packed.

Not because people were drinking their troubles away. They were all sitting and eating. And, 75% were moms in their 30s and 40s. Whaaa?

It wasn’t long until we figured out what was going on. This little pub had figured out a way to shine, while all the restaurants around them stumbled. Along with their standard menu, we were each given a long, 6 inch wide piece of paper and a red pen.

On the paper were about 50 different options for chopped salad mix-ins. We each sat choosing our salad items and, a few minutes later, two giant finely-chopped salads arrived at our table. We dove in, couldn’t finish either and reveled about how we never about this hidden salad gem before. But, clearly others had.

Since then, this little grill has become our go-to place for taking out, ordering in and the occasional dinner with friends, family style.

Because … they get it.

People are looking for value more than at any other time in decades. And, if you can’t strongly differentiate yourself, you and your business become fungible replaceable interchangeable.

And, that’s an awful place to be in a down economy.

So, how will you differentiate and showcase your unique value in 2009?

* * * * *

Jonathan Fields, hedge-fund lawyer turned lifestyle entrepreneurAbout the Author: Jonathan Fields is a former hedge-fund lawyer turned serial lifestyle entrepreneur, copywriter, Internet and direct marketer, speaker and writer. You can find him blogging on entrepreneurship and lifestyles at Awake At The Wheel, crafting high-impact copy for clients at Vibe Creative or training people to become entrepreneurs and career renegades at Career Renegade. His next book, also called Career Renegade, is due out from Random House/Broadway Books In January 2009.


Jonathan Fields Jonathan Fields is a former hedge-fund lawyer turned serial lifestyle entrepreneur, copywriter, Internet and direct marketer, speaker and writer. You can find him blogging on entrepreneurship and lifestyles at Awake At The Wheel, crafting high-impact copy for clients at Vibe Creative or training people to become entrepreneurs and career renegades at Career Renegade (also a book published through Random House/Broadway Books).

24 Reactions
  1. Jonathan Fields: Where are you located? How is the book coming along?

    People found our place by word-of-mouth. But we had to “close shop” due to the economic situation. The business idea and concept is still alive and we are in discussions with new cooperation partners. I will write a piece on the lessons I learned from my startup, and why I would do it all over again, on Open Forum in the near future.

  2. Being unique and remarkable against your competitors is really a tough job to do. Can’t even figure that out as of the moment.

  3. Differentiation has always been important in marketing and I agree with you that it is even more important in today’s economy. But that makes it extra critical you’re listening to your clients to figure out how to differentiate yourself. There’s no sense in becoming the best tapas restaurant in town if no one eats tapas.

  4. @ Martin – I’m in NYC, and the book is out in a few weeks, thanks for asking. No doubt, there are times where a complete retrenching allow for better positioning than pushing on. That’s a biz decision we all to make when the time comes. And, it’s never easy, but if the concept if fundamentally good, it’s generally worth the effort.

    @ Luz – You’re right, it’s a really tough job to strongly differentiate yourself. But, here’s the thing, if we can’t come up with powerful reasons for our customers to come to us, rather than our competitors…how can expect them to come up with reasons. Without differentiation it almost always comes down to price and that’s a place I don’t want to be in as a business owner. So, yes, it’s really hard work, and if there is no genuine differentiation, then the job becomes to create it. And, in this economy, it’s worth the effort.

    @ Joe – Agreed, be different in a way that serves your customers better.

  5. If there were ever a time to get creative, this is it. Take a risk and do something different, and people will remember you. This is a time when lots of companies are pulling back and becoming more conservative. So it may actually be easier to stand out from the crowd during the current time.

  6. Jonathan: I will read your book. I think it could have a great impact on my future career and lifestyle. I am planning to visit NYC in 2009. Maybe a “MeetUp” activity in The Big Apple? Click on “Martin Lindeskog” Says: for more details.

  7. We’re all looking to stretch our money as far as it goes. It’s smart for businesses to find unique ways to attract consumers to ‘want’ to spend their hard earned money. Give me great service and a great value and I’m there.

  8. I have to second Anita’s words here in that many companies are pulling back – which opens a giant door for others to step through and really introduce themselves in a big way. And there’s nothing like personalized service and options. People love that as can be seen by your example of the pub with their salads. If we had something like that around my way . . . I’d be there too!

  9. I’m so impressed with this article Differentiate or Die in a Downturn, it gets to the very heart of what it takes to be successful in business.

    I’m a fitness trainer in London uk, and the recession has hit like an earthquake. So many people have been made redundant, and fitness sessions have been sacrificed left right and centre. In the last 2 months, business is down 50%.

    How have I responded? By spending

  10. Sometimes differentiation can be as simple a doing one basic activity well: following up. Every customer is precious and a key differentiator may be simnply in NOT IGNORING your customers or prospects. I can’t tell you how often I’ve contacted a service provider and been ignored. I actually hired my landscaper because — he RETURNED my call. You don’t have to be off-the-wall different, but just making it easier for people to choose you would help.

  11. @ Anita – Very true, tough times allow those who put the effort even more latitude to shine. And, the great thing is it often doesn’t take money, rather it takes creativity and effort.

    @ Definitely reach out when in my neighborhood

    @ Amanda – Definitely, now it the to sharpen not only the pencil, but creative edge

    @ Chris – Personalization is often a powerful differentiator, the challenge there, though, can be scalability. But, that’s a challenge worth engaging.

    @ Ivana – So true, I am often amazed at how many small businesses and professional never call back after they get an inquiry. So often, the job goes not toe the best qualified, but the one who calls and shows interest.

    But, important caveat. If you ignore prospects when times are good, then go crawling back to them months or years later for business when times are challenging, you may have some relationship repair work to do to regain trust. That’s why it’s important to treat prospects with respect in all stages of market and economic cycles.

  12. Jonathan: We will keep in touch! I look forward to meet you in NYC!

    Ivana: I agree with your statement and Jonathan’s additional caveat. As an experienced purchaser I valued the suppliers who stayed in touch on a regular basis, and I tried to have a ongoing conversation with my raw material sources. You never know when you “trade places” and you are sitting on the other side of the negotiation table. It is in line with my ideas on the concept of the trader principle.

  13. This is a really timely article for my own web business. I am trying to find ways to differentiate myself from my competition but its definitely not easy. I know there is a way though – I just have to discover it.

  14. I agree with Joe about listening to your customers as they will give you hints about what is important to them. The differentiation must be relevant to the customer and not what the business thinks is relevant.

  15. Hi Jonathan,

    Thanks for the reply. And, Yes — it’s worth everything!


  16. hi Carla-

    I just checked out your Green + Chic website and I think it’s fab.
    You mentioned in your post above about the challenge of finding the best way to differentiate yourself from the competition. I have the same challenge in a crowded personal fitness trainer market.

    I think the key differentiator is YOU! Just as with my business, it is the individual trainer and his/her personality and values. Just project your personality into the market by promoting your site, and keep blogging your beliefs and values on your site. You’re already diferrentiating yourself – you just need to find ways of getting more people to visit your site.

    Hi Jonathan – I’m in the uk and I hope your Career Renegade book will come out in uk too – i’ll certainly buy it! I’m so glad I came across your website – it really strikes a chord with me.

  17. I like what you said about treating all prospects with respect. I have found more than once that not only have I received referrals based off of that simple notion, I have also been able to return to a project that I had initially passed over because I had gone out of my way to build strong relationships with those I encountered. In 2009 I will have to come up with a few more creative ways to stand out, thanks for the reminder (and the holiday homework)


  18. Great post. Offer a real value to the target audience and they will come.

    Wilma Woodson

  19. As a freelance copywriter, I find one of the best ways to set myself apart is to customize my offerings to each client’s particular needs. My favorite thing to say is “I can do that, and I can also…” My clients love the extra tips I throw in when their projects are complete – usually recommendations for coding and formatting so the search engines will like their site.

  20. I agree Melissa. We should give ourselves a chance to go to an extra mile. 🙂

  21. Yes people are far more selective about spending their money now.
    Gimmicky sales ploys are no longer effective and only real bargains and quality products/services will sale.

    Increase communication with your existing clients and look after them before someone else does. Do more JV’s they are cheap and effective.
    Sale smaller quantities more oten, give fantastic warranties, it shows that you are confident in your product and removes the risk.

    If you want more great business tips go to:-

  22. Jonathan, I am doing exceptionally well in the tiny niche market of Executive Coaching/Anger Management for physicians. I quickly recognized that busy surgeons who are mandated to coaching course as a result of “disruptive behavior” prefer to be seen at their convenience on-site rather than spending time coming to my office. Therefore, my firm offers Coaching for physicians On-site, nationwide seven days a week.
    This has made us the leading provider of these services nationwide.

  23. @ George – Love that example, rather than going broader to appeal to more people, often ultra-specialization or “niche-ing it down” is a powerful way to differentiate.

    So, now you’re not competing against every other executive coach, but against every other executive coach with a focus on on-site exec-coaching/anger management for docs. You’ve cut your competition from 10s of thousands to, what, a few dozen, if that?

    And, my guess is, with the state of the medical field, your pool of clients is, well, massive.

  24. Fantastic website and explicit this post, also with Camino displayed good.