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TORONTO, ONT.: SEPTEMBER 20, 2011 -- Distility CEO Axle Davids is photographed at his workplace in the MaRS Incubator in Toronto, Ont., September 20, 2011.........Sarah Dea/For The Globe and Mail

SARAH DEA/The Globe and Mail

By the time Axle Davids started his own brand consulting firm 10 years ago, he had already worked in the industry for almost two decades. So he knew what kind of competition he would be up against.

He also knew he had to do find a way to be different.

"When I was drafting my first business plan, I wrote about how I would use innovation to stand out from other companies," recalls Mr. Davids, founder of Toronto-based Distility Branding, whose roster of clients include AT&T Mobility and AutoShare - Car Sharing Network Inc. "So the idea of differentiating myself from my competition was really baked into my business strategy."

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Mr. Davids developed a technology-based system that allows his clients to define their brands in one day – a significant point of difference in an industry where branding projects can take weeks or even months to complete. And instead of giving his clients the usual big report at the end of their branding exercise, Mr. Davids hands out a one-page brand summary.

"It struck me that there had to be a better and different way to do branding," says Mr. Davids. "It's taken me almost 10 years to develop that better and different way, but now it's done and there's nothing else like it."

Mr. Davids isn't the first entrepreneur to discover that it pays to stand out from the competition. Whether they're running mom-and-pop shops or multi-million-dollar operations, business owners and managers understand the importance of differentiating their products and services.

But not everyone does a good job of figuring out what makes them different and conveying those differences to their customers, says Robert Fisher, professor of marketing at the University of Alberta.

"To differentiate yourself in your market, you need to have a good idea of your unique value proposition – what your company stands for and what you provide that your customers won't easily find anywhere else," he says. "It sounds quite simple but it's actually a bit more complex than that."

Companies looking to differentiate themselves should approach the task from a company and product level, says Dr. Fisher. They need to analyze how their company as a whole brings something unique to their customers, such as in how they support their products or services. They should also think about how each product or service addresses the needs of their customers.

Knowing how competitors are differentiating themselves is crucial, says Dr. Fisher.

"The last thing you want is to be claiming you're different because you're doing this particular thing, only to find out that the competition is saying the exact same thing," he says.

Once you've defined and announced your points of difference, you need to stick to it, adds Dr. Fisher.

"The downside is that you've now constrained yourself to a very specific value proposition," he says. "But the upside is that you can now focus your efforts on delivering this value."

Kevin McKenzie, a Toronto-based partner and business development leader at Ernst & Young, a global professional services firm, says consistency is key for companies that want to stand apart from the competition.

But this doesn't mean being completely predictable, he says. To continue being different, companies need to constantly think of ways to create unique experiences for their clients.

"For example, we run sessions with our clients where we bring in senior executives and spend a day or two brainstorming the client's challenges," says Mr. McKenzie. "One time, we locked ourselves away with a client for three days and emerged with six killer ideas to help our client be more successful."

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Tracey Riley, Toronto-based national leader of consulting and deals at PwC Canada, which provides assurance, advisory and tax services, cautions against trying to be different and better in everything, or trying to appeal to everyone. Instead, she recommends focusing on one or a few particular areas of expertise.

"We don't try and help every company transform their organization and we're selective in focusing on areas where we have deep expertise, such as in security issues for the technology or telco industries, or in health care," she says.

Companies that are able to identify their areas of expertise can more easily establish themselves as thought leaders in their field, adds Ms. Riley. An effective way to do this is by publishing books and reports focusing on these particular areas.

PwC, for instance, publishes a global entertainment and media outlook report each year.

"It's one of those really credible pieces of thought leadership in the entertainment and media industry," says Ms. Riley. "Our clients look at it when they're putting together their business strategy and financial analysis, and a number of them will refer to this document in their annual reports."

At Distility Branding, an ebook written by Mr. Davids called Brand Scammed! How to avoid buying the wrong branding solution gives the company a competitive edge during the procurement process. Mr. Davids, who also writes a regular blog on all matters related to branding, says he sends the book to prospective customers before meeting with them.

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"I took that category differentiation against my competition and turned it into a guide for buying a branding solution," he says. "We know that we are probably the fourth branding agency the client is meeting, and the book changes the tenor of the meeting because all of a sudden we're no longer just an agency; we're a thought leader who is helping them unravel the process of choosing a branding solution."

Christie Henderson, partner at Henderson Partners LLP in Oakville, just west of Toronto, says one way she established herself and her accounting firm as leaders in personal tax accounting was by writing a series of Tax Tips for Canadians for Dummies books.

Writing the books is time-consuming, she says, but it's worth the effort because the books increase brand recognition and position Henderson Partners as an authority in its field.

"It immediately makes us unique in the eyes of our customers," says Ms. Henderson. "In addition to all the unique and proprietary things we're doing service-wise, we can also say that we're the company that writes the Taxes for Dummies books."

Special to The Globe and Mail


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Dare to be different

  • Be innovative. Look at what your competition is doing and do something completely different.
  • Be relevant to your customers. It pays to be different – but only if your unique product or service holds value for your customers.
  • Don’t be a jack-of-all-trades. Instead, find your areas of expertise and focus on being the best in these areas.
  • Lead the discussion. Establish yourself as a thought leader by writing reports, books and blogs that address your customers’ needs and answer their questions.

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