Is it better to be different than it is to be better?

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By: Neil Edwards on 21st November 2013, 2 minute read

Australian marketing and business strategist, Barry Urquahart, once said 'It is better to be different than it is to be better'.

But is this the case?

A post on our Facebook page drew a variety of opinions.

Kate Ayres-Rouse, owner of Yellow Kite, a luxury and lifestyle PR agency in Portugal was quick to dive in with 'both!' arguing that a business needs to be both different and better to succeed.

Sam McArthur of internet marketing specialist, Savvy Marketers, qualified the point by saying that it is better to be different as long as different is better (chocolate tea pots immediately spring to mind!).

Another commentator came off the fence and said it is better to be different so that the benefits of first mover advantage can be maximised.

I disagree...and here's why.

There is no fundamental need for a business to be different, indeed the need for a USP is a myth. Competitive advantage is achieved through having a distinctive competency, i.e. something that you are very good at and better than your competitors.  That competency might be in an area such as distribution, innovation, marketing or customer service.  If you can identify and satisfy customer needs better than your competition, you will survive and thrive.

The argument is backed by theory.  Michael Porter said that a competitive advantage exists when a firm is able to deliver the same benefits as its competitors, but at a lower cost ('cost advantage'), or deliver benefits that exceed those of competing products (differentiation advantage).  In either case the advantage is achieved by being better, not different.

Of course, it is possible for a business to survive without a clear competitive advantage if the market is big enough to support more than one provider. There is little difference between Starbucks and Costa Coffee - they are both coffee houses with little to distinguish them other than the sign over the door.  They have both thrived because they have distinctive competencies in a vast and seemingly insatiable market.

The road to ruin is littered with businesses that strove to be different.  The ones that are in heaven are the ones that are better.

What do you think?

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Neil Edwards

Author

Neil Edwards

Neil is a Chartered Marketer and Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Marketing with many years' experience in marketing, brand and communications.

CEO / The Marketing Eye

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