Heads above water

Dave Wilson describes how product differentiation could be the salvation of your company.

“When you’re drowning, you don’t say ‘I would be incredibly pleased if someone would have the foresight to notice me drowning and come and help me,’ you just scream.” – John Lennon.

Last weekend, I found the perfect way to put my daughter off shopping for clothes. While walking through the local shopping mall, I asked her to take a long hard look at the clobber that the people that frequented the place were wearing.

They were, I told her, all the same. The uniform of the 21st century:  sneakers, jeans, t-shirts and waterproof jackets with the prerequisite Velcro collar. As we walked along together, a big grin came over her face. She had got the message loud and clear.

After that, we didn’t stay for very long in any other clothes stores. She didn’t like any of the outfits because all of them looked the same. And, being a young lady with a strong personality, she wanted to buy something ‘different.’ But unfortunately, she couldn’t find a thing. The result – dad got more time to spend in the pub. A result, by any account.

Trouble is, today, whatever you buy – clothes, computers, or cars – there’s very little difference between one product and another. There may appear to be a choice, but the choice is either extremely limited, or non-existent.

The problem is exactly the same one that has plagued manufacturers in the industrial sector over the past decade. Industrial equipment – PLCs, drives, pneumatics and hydraulics – has become inexpensive and all pervasive. Faced with such a scenario, is it any wonder that there have been any number of consolidations, mergers, takeovers and, of course, layoffs?

So what’s a manufacturer to do when he wakes up one morning and realises that his products are no better or no worse than those that are being hawked by the next guy on the block?

The answer, of course, is product differentiation. It’s a lesson that Dyson taught us how to suck on with his Cyclone and the same one that Apple taught us to listen to with its iPod MP3 player. These bits of kit might not perform much differently than any other bit of kit. They might not have the best suction, or the largest hard drive storage either. Or be the cheapest products that money can buy. But they do appeal to the consumer simply because they are different. And different sells.

So take a long hard look at your product line from the perspective of the potential buyer. And if you think that your customers can perceive no difference between your products and the next man’s, you’ve got a problem.

If you do, then it’s time to rethink the company gameplan. Before the Chinese step in with the takeover proposal that falls through at the last minute, the Government sends you a bridging loan, or the directors have to start selling their country estates to keep the company afloat.

Or is it already too late for that?