The Experience — does it set you apart?

In a marketplace where most products and services aren’t unique, setting your brand apart can be difficult.

This was the biggest concern of a group of bank marketers to which I had the pleasure to speak earlier this month at the American Bankers Association’s national marketing conference.

This question kept coming up during my breakout session, and it honestly impressed me. Most business owners and executives think their product or service is unique and deserving of patronage simply because it’s theirs.

This group of bankers understood what so many business owners, marketers and startups fail to realize about their place in the world: you’re unique — just like everyone else.

These bankers beat their head against the wall trying to sell the same services as their competitors. Savings, checking, mobile access, online banking, home loans and any number of other services and products — all are parity products that are difficult for consumers to differentiate.

This phenomenon is hardly unique to banking. In fact, I would venture to say that differentiation is a struggle in most industries. Lack of awareness might be the only general factor that threatens most individual businesses.

Globalization, social media, cell phones, improvements in transportation and other innovations in technology have created unprecedented shifts in competitive environments. The bank that used to compete with its rival on the other corner now faces down virtual banks, cryptocurrency and person-to-person transfers.

If you’re in a saturated industry or find yourself selling a similar product to other companies around you, how do you set your brand apart?

The way to carve out your space in the marketplace is to identify, and hone, the experience you provide your customer.

Think about Starbucks. Starbucks now has locations in small cities where there aren’t many other coffee shops, but they started in cities with plenty of coffee shops. Starbucks developed an exclusive language — a language that only Starbucks coffee drinkers speak. As annoying as the language is (it’s not a tall if it’s the smallest cup on the menu), it offers coffee drinkers the opportunity to be in an exclusive club. The brilliance lies in the fact that Starbucks employees are happy to help you learn the language and be a part of the club.

That’s the experience of Starbucks: being special. The baristas will make a drink any way you can imagine it. They’ll identify you by name and, if you go enough, they’ll have it ready for you when you walk in the door. You’re special at Starbucks.

Plenty of coffee shops have followed this model, naming common drinks in the language of locals and personalizing the customer’s experience. It’s why most coffee drinkers have their preferred coffee shop. In Jackson’s Fondren district, Cups and Sneaky Bean exist within blocks of each other. Each serves a great cup of coffee and staff their coffee bars with personable people, but almost everyone I meet for coffee has a strong preference of the two. They offer similar drinks, great coffee roasts and two very different experiences.

To the passing observer, the differences are subtle, subconscious even. Regardless, each place has its own unique following.

To understand the experience economy, it’s important to go back 100 or so years. Imagine it’s the early 1900s and you live in a small mining town in Northern California. Most stores sell commodities. To stick with the coffee example, they are selling ground or whole-bean coffee in tins and bags for people to use in their homes. Once a week, you walk down to the general store to buy your tin of coffee for the week, likely choosing from only one or two options and operating under the assumption that all coffee is the same.

As time goes on, coffee distributors are finding their sales expand into the footprint of other coffee distributors and have to begin setting themselves apart. Branding now becomes an issue. Trademarks are introduced to protect consumers, ensuring one can have confidence they’re purchasing goods from the correct manufacturer.

In the ‘60s, Folgers used a popular actress to tell people why Folgers was the best coffee because the beans are mountain grown. Now coffee isn’t a commodity — it’s a good. Consumers now have choices to make. They can choose based on price or based on flavor or perceived value. Differentiation between the makeup of the product is king in this era. “This brand is the cheapest, but this other brand has richer beans because they were grown in the mountains.”

At some point, coffee also became a service. Why go to the store and buy a bag of beans and then wake up early to prepare it when you could stop by your favorite diner on the way to work and have a cup of coffee made for you?

In 1984, to compete with coffee’s service side, Folgers became an experience. The company reminded coffee drinkers of their favorite part of their morning routine — waking up to the smell and warmth of a cup of Folgers coffee. It’s the best part of waking up.

Not long after, the diners and coffee houses serving coffee began following suit, bringing us all the way to Starbucks.

Whether a bank, coffee shop, fro-yo stand or oil change emporium, you can differentiate yourself among similar competitors.

In a crowded marketplace, your least common denominator is your brand experience and usually your strongest marketing opportunity.

Think about this as you visit other companies this week.

“Of all the frozen yogurt joints in this shopping center, why did I choose this one?”

“What keeps me coming back to my barber aside from the convenience of not changing?”

More important, turn those questions on your own business. Are you providing an experience worth visiting? When you interact with clients, is it an event worth sharing?

Ask your customers.

Ask yourself, “Why would someone choose me?”