What are your competitive differentiators? When I was consulting, I would ask this question of my clients during our very first meeting. While it may seem like a simple question, answers were often hard to come by. Many times, what a retailer thought was their differentiator was the viewpoint of the employee—not necessarily that of the customer.
In today’s competitive retail environment, differentiation is more important than ever. Yet, as I surf from retailer website to retailer website and endlessly click on hundreds of marketing emails in my inbox, I am struck by one thing: Very few retailers are communicating to me what makes them different from the next guy. This got me thinking: Why is this the case, and what can retailers do to change this?
Who Communicates Differentiators?
Amazon has evolved from the online bookstore it once was by doing things differently to grow their business. They focused on being customer-centric. They provide(d) great customer service and free shipping, and now offer a litany of benefits associated with Prime. They are continuously adding perks that consumers want. And guess what? They want you to know. They promote it at every stage on the shopping experience.
If a non-Prime member navigates to the site they will see the “Try Prime” image in the upper left corner of the screen. When viewing a product, they will see a Prime callout under the pricing touting fast, free shipping. Above the “Add to Cart” button they again see a checkbox asking if the user wants “FREE Two-Day Shipping” by trying Prime. During checkout I am again presenting with the free shipping callout with a trial of Prime. They even offer Prime-Only products. Prime is their differentiator and they constantly reinforce the value of Prime to shoppers.
Looking at one of Amazon’s biggest competitors, Walmart, we know their differentiator is/was selection and low prices. Consumers recognize this but resting on these laurels in today’s age is not good enough. Walmart’s website constantly reinforces free 2-day shipping with no membership fees. As I move through the shopping cart I am again reminded of this. If you look at Walmart’s emails, every one of them has a banner above the main image advertising, “No membership fees with free 2-day shipping.” This is a direct counter to Amazon’s paid Prime service. While their primary differentiator has always been low prices, they know constant reinforcement is one way to attract or retain customers.
But those are both examples of very large companies. Let’s look at a different brand: TOMS. They differentiated through their One for One model, where with each purchase a product donation is made to those in need around the world. Other retailers have also taken to this model, as younger consumers demonstrate their desire to be socially conscious. Upon going to TOMS website, I see a plethora of callouts to this program, including in the navigation and as I scroll down the page. With every email from TOMS this program is again reinforced within their messaging. TOMS is constantly demonstrating to consumers what makes them stand out.
While your company may not be Amazon or Walmart, you likely compete with them. Now, include the smaller competitors into the mix and the market becomes very tight, very quickly. So, how do you differentiate your brand from your competitors and influence consumers to purchase from you?
How Do You Differentiate?
There are many ways to differentiate, including price, shipping speed, return policies, customer service, product quality, product selection, location, in-store experience, rewards programs, consumable content (e.g. how-to videos), technology (e.g. mobile apps), and social causes. Think about ways you can reinforce your brand differentiators at every step of customer engagement. Here are some things to consider:
Website: While this might seem obvious, does your site visibly do this? Visit yours and two of your competitor’s sites. Is there anything on the homepage of these sites that would tell a consumer what differentiates the brands from one another? Don’t let your most valuable asset sit idly by.
Email: Look at reinforcing these in every one of your messages but start with your welcome messaging. I just looked at the last 30 welcome emails I received and only three—I repeat three—of them included any mention of what makes them or their products different. These emails go to brand new email subscribers! This is a prime opportunity to influence a customer. If nothing else, it might make them pause before pulling the trigger with your competitor. Don’t waste this golden opportunity.
Beyond the welcome, look for areas in your promotional emails to reinforce what makes you different. This could be secondary banner callouts or added content to your headers. Cart and browse abandonment messages are often overlooked places to include your differentiators. Remember, these messages are sent to consumers who did not buy. Reinforcing what makes you stand out can overcome the obstacles to conversion.
And yes, personalization can be a differentiator. Always consider using intuitive product recommendations in both your emails and on your website.
Social Media: Be proactive, respond to and engage with your social followers. This is your opportunity to establish a personal connection with consumers. If a consumer knows your brand is receptive and available, it can build consumer confidence. Remember, by publicly communicating with one person, everyone else can also see that. While the immediate focus is on this one person, that exchange will transcend to others.
Customer Service: Customer service is a differentiator all by itself, and, I would argue, more important than ever. If you excel at customer service, shout it from the hilltops. This shows you are customer-centric and care about them. People like shopping with companies knowing they will be taken care of if something goes amiss. Remember that your customer service is an extension of your sales team. One bad experience can cost you a customer for life. Great experiences can keep them shopping for life. Be sure to train them well.
In a retail environment where the consumer has more shopping choices than ever, differentiation is arguably more critical than ever. You need to communicate this to consumers at every step of the customer lifecycle. But before doing so, you need to really think about why someone would purchase from you and not someone else. So, let me ask you: What are your competitive differentiators?
Greg Zakowicz is a Senior Commerce Marketing Analyst at Bronto Software