Okay, but what makes your business different?

By Heather Buttrum

I worked as a copywriter in my very first agency job. I was terrible at it.

In that role, I was tasked with writing copy about a steakhouse one day, a carpet company the next, a not-for-profit association the day after that, and so on. It was my job to find something unique and clever to say about each one. But tight deadlines didn’t allow for any meaningful thought or research, so instead of ‘unique and clever’ I ended up churning out ‘trite but well-written!’ copy lines day after day. The marketing material that resulted was polished, glossy… and totally indiscernible from the offerings of our client’s competitors. It was soul-killing work.

I never wanted to do trite again.

So now, twenty years later, I don’t. Our agency has a rule that’s been in place since we opened our doors seven years ago: We only work with a small number of clients at a time. This allows us to immerse ourselves in their business and really understand the project. In my experience, this is the only way to find something resonant to say.

red umbrella among many other grey umbrellas
Photo by Noah Näf on Unsplash

So, how do we know when we’ve found the right approach with messaging? I’ve noticed that these three boxes always get checked when you say something different and meaningful in your marketing:

1. It should be something that your competitors would never/could never say

One of the first books that changed the way I think about marketing was called Zag by Marty Neumeier. As the title implies, it’s a book about how your brand should zag while everyone else is zigging. Neumeier coined the term ‘the onlyness statement’ which refers to saying something about your brand that none of your competitors can claim. It’s a confident play. It tells people who you are. And it can act as the signal through the noise in your industry, especially if your peers are playing it safe.

Here’s a challenge: Go and read the first paragraph on your website right now. Now go and read the first paragraph of a few of your competitors. Are they similar? Worse, are they basically interchangeable? If the answer is yes, you’ve got a problem. And you should probably read on.

2. It should feel uncomfortable

By laying out what makes you different, you risk alienating some potential customers. That may sound like a bad thing at first, but hear me out and let me illustrate this point with a story:

I love dogs. My dogs go everywhere with me. A few years back I was looking for a place up north to get away to for a week or two. I scrolled through endless photos of docks, sunsets, and Muskoka chairs for hours until they all blurred together. And then I came across one and all the others just fell away. “A vacation for you and your dog!”, proclaimed the site. “We have an on-site agility course.” “Dogs are welcome on all our beaches.” You get the idea. I booked immediately. Did this resort risk alienating all the dog haters out there? For sure. But did it also succeed in catching my attention after hours of indecision? Yes, yes it did. Even though many places I looked at were dog-friendly accommodations, they didn’t put it out there as a differentiator.

My point is that it’s not a bad thing to narrow your prospects by telling them what makes you different. Think about brands with devout followings: the Apples and Harley-Davidsons and Patagonias of the world. They tell you who they are, and who they are not. Do they appeal to everybody? Absolutely not. But the loyalty they earn by saying something meaningful and allowing their products to become a symbol for that meaning is remarkable. For more on this, see another one of my favourite marketing books: Start With Why.

3. It’s probably the thing that makes you and your team want to put in the work every day

In my experience, the thing that makes you different is often the thing that you love the most about the work your organization does. What makes you feel proud about the work? What impact does it make? That’s a good place to start when trying to articulate what makes you different.

Here are some practical examples from our company:

  1. We only work with a handful of clients at a time, because it lets us immerse ourselves in their project and do something really meaningful with them.
  2. We will always choose making things right over making a profit.
  3. We only do digital marketing.
  4. The team comes before anything else, even our clients.

And by saying these four things, here’s who I lose as an audience for my message:

  1. Anyone looking for a huge, big-name agency. We will never be huge while committing to a select group of clients whose work we believe in.
  2. Employees and investors who are profit-driven.
  3. People who want to hire us for marketing projects that don’t have a digital component.
  4. The “customer is always right” crowd.

But the clients that remain? Man, it’s so, so good. And we’re still standing, doing great work after seven years.

So, I ask you: What makes your business different?



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Rain Digital

Rain Digital

Digital Done Properly. Rain is a boutique digital agency based in Hamilton, Ontario 🍁, with team members in Toronto, Niagara, Chicago and Timisoara.