Is Authenticity the key to being “Meaningfully Different”?

by cv harquail on May 20, 2010

If organizations are going to be successful at attracting good members and good clients or customers, they have go beyond showing how they are different from other, similar organizations.

They have to take that extra step, and demonstrate why these differences are meaningful.

“Meaningful difference”

“Meaningful difference” is an important concept in both organizational theory and actual business practice. “Meaningful difference” is how we sustain competitive advantage, and often also how we sustain our reason for being. After all, if other organizations and products are just like ours, why would ours matter?

201005181211.jpgHow organizations and managers create and maintain “meaningful difference” has been on my mind as I’ve been talking with ThisGuy about a challenge his business is facing. ThisGuy has a new competitor that aims to grab his market share by imitating ThisGuy’s product.

This new competitor is creating a problem for ThisGuy, because he isn’t quite sure whether his organization, his product or his own voice is, in fact, different in any meaningful way. (I know, it seems crazy, but it is actually a problem!)

I’ve been trying to work through the problem in the abstract so that I can help with the problem in real life. Let me start by unfolding the issues. Then, I’ll share the real-life specifics.

Meaningful Difference, in theory

Managing the tension between being similar and being different from others is an ongoing organizational challenge.

Organizations, especially new ones, go to great lengths to look like other organizations in their niches/markets, so that they can be recognized for being a certain type (e.g., bank vs. restaurant) and so they look legitimate. At the same time, organizations try to emphasize what makes them distinctive, in part because this gives them a way to be distinctive and in part becuase it gives stakeholders a reason to chose that organization over others.

Usually, when organizations are trying to find ways to be meaningfully different, they focus on authenticity… on aligning who they are with what they believe with what they do.

Being authentic, being ‘who we are’, requires us to express both what’s similar about us as well as what’s distinctive about our identities. The assumption is that any characteristics that define ‘who we are’ as organizations, whether these characteristics are similar to others’ or distinctive to us, are somehow meaningful. If they weren’t meaningful, the organization wouldn’t be part of the organization’s self-definition. The presence of these characteristics in the organization’s self-definition is proof that they matter.

201005181211.jpgIf an organization is continually striving for authenticity, for aligning who it is with what it believes with what it does, the organization will always be working to express its meaningful differences.

Authenticity is an engine for sustaining differences that are meaningful.

These meaningful differences matter, because they give customers and members a reason to pick your organization over others.

In the marketplace, organizations that sustain meaningful differences (by being authentic) establish competitive distinctiveness. Organizations that cannot sustain meaningful differences can easily be replaced by other organizations. The competitive business challenge is to find and sustain meaningful differences.

Meaningful Difference, in practice

Now here’s the real-life example.

  • ThisGuy has a small, profitable online business going — a market niche which his site has been serving effectively for a few years now.

He’s got 4 people working part-time to help him generate and edit content and to manage technology and fulfillment issues. In addition to his ‘real’ job, ThisGuy guides the site’s content and perspective. It is his expertise that shapes the site’s voice and that adds unique value to the content.

  • It appears that the strategy of the competitive site is to copy ThisGuy’s business, lock, stock and Tshirt.

As ThisGuy sees it, there is not that much currently differentiating the two sites– they both are serving the exact same small niche, they both are offering content to fill clients’ needs, both going after similar targeted advertisers.

  • It takes some expertise to understand clients needs and to know how to serve them, but it appears to This Guy that TheOtherGuy has expertise similar to his own.

Moreover, TheOtherGuy has a perspective on/philosophy about the niche that is similar to ThisGuy’s own. The two Guys don’t even have different styles– the content of both sites has a similar voice.

  • Well, it’s actually even worse than that…it seems pretty apparent to ThisGuy that TheOtherGuy has been combing through ThisGuy’s content, taking the most popular posts (and the comments attached to them) and mining them for ideas.

[How does ThisGuy know that? Well, one giveaway is that funny terms used by ThisGuy pop up in TheOtherGuy’s posts. True, ThisGuy did not register the phrase “The Manwich Generation” to talk about dads who care for their aging fathers, but doesn’t it seem like more than a coincidence that the phrase turns up on TheOtherGuy’s site?]

201005181211.jpgFrom ThisGuy’s perspective, it’s only a matter of time and focus before TheOtherGuy mines ThisGuy’s site, generates a similar ‘bulk’ of content, adds a bit of his own patter, and steals his market.

Meaningful Difference: Does it always exist?

What, if anything, can ThisGuy do about the new competition?

What I keep coming back to in my conversation with ThisGuy is the issue of ‘meaningful distinctiveness’. I’ve been asking him things like:

  • Is there anyway that you, ThisGuy, are meaningfully different from TheOtherGuy? (No, he says.)
  • Is there anything meaningfully different in what you present on your site? In how your site looks? (No, he says. When someone copies you … )
  • Is there anything meaningfully different in the ways that you understand the market and the product? (No, he says. TheOtherGuy is so much like me it’s almost freaky.)

The only difference ThisGuy can see is that his site has been running for two years, and he’s just got more content on it.

Ultimately, ThisGuy is suggesting that there is nothing meaningfully different that he has to offer.

Could this really be true?

I have so much invested in the ideas that:

(1) if you are authentic, you will be different, and
(2) “who you are’ is inherently meaningful,

I can hardly believe that emphasizing his own authentic self and authentic perspective might not be enough for ThisGuy to remain competitive.

While I have a few other more tactical suggestions about how he could use his catalog and archives to create some distinctive products, truth is these will be easy for TheOtherGuy to copy, eventually.

201005181211.jpgWhat else can ThisGuy do to sustain create his competitive advantage?

See Also:

What’s going on at my favorite Starbucks?
Response to 9/11 Tragedy Revealed Business Schools’ Values
Organic Discount or Competency Penalty? The real reason organic wines sell for less

Images:  (Portrait) Yin/Yang 2007-09-23 from vernhart


Adrian Bashford May 21, 2010 at 11:02 am

“What else can ThisGuy do to sustain create his competitive advantage?”
Keep moving.

Many companies worry about the competition copying what they are trying to do, I actually see this as a boon to the company being cloned. The copying becomes great marketing material (you see, they are just playing catch up), and if you are being authentic in a way that customers value, just keep blazing the trail and working on the next thing.

Someone else is going to come up with the next iPad or iPhone, but by then, Apple is already on the next step.
.-= Adrian Bashford´s last blog ..Comment on Leadership Weekly Digest – 2010WK19 by Adrian Bashford =-.

Arão Benjamin Garcea May 26, 2010 at 1:46 pm

In the first place, the fact that ThisGuy was the first in the market is the most important distinction about any other. It’s clear that, without any other similar to look at, he invents this type of business and implement it. Any one that comes after him, with a biz similar can’t say the model is his.
If he truly understand what his model is, he can explain it to his costumers and add that he’s the one who thought about that, that this makes sense because of something that he knows or believe, or other something that motivated him.
Authenticity only comes with self-counciousness.

Gwyn Teatro June 1, 2010 at 10:59 pm

Hi CV,
I guess the question that comes to mind for me is, “Why do the customers choose thisguy over thatguy?”
Perhaps it is a naive question but it seems to me that how any organization, on-line or otherwise, differentiates itself from the competition is how it responds to the customer and how it engenders loyalty.
This is an area where authenticity can play a very large role could it not?

Mark Avery September 22, 2010 at 6:37 am

one thing that he can do is to create an online community of the customers he now has, and allow that community to build up its own distinctiveness and sense of belonging. This accelerates the pace of innovation. Like Adrian says above, the OtherGuy will always be playing catchup.

He can also accelerate the pace of investment in his business, making it more responsive to customer needs/trends. This is a risk the Other Guy may not be willing to take.
He might also want to look at his own story– why he got involved in this in the first place and the characteristic values that drive his MO. If he can articulate that, as well as how that is applied in his business, the social network may catch the bug and become inspired advocates.

All in all, best practices and products are all going to be imitated, and if the market niche is too small, one or two more imitators will destroy the field for eveyone (re: game theory). One response to this is to look at his mix of clientele and capacities and characterize the types of problems that this particular mix resolves… then go looking for matches in other places. Not to say he would or should shut this down… jsut that there needs to be a contingency plan 🙂

cv harquail September 22, 2010 at 9:29 am

Hi Mark,

Thanks so much for your suggestions– I think that the tactic of creating a community that generates its own distinctiveness is a great idea (and one that he is pursuing)… Anyone who establishes belonging in This Guy’s group will have a barrier to exit to the OtherGuy’s site…

I think ThisGuy is also still struggling with the ‘story’ behind his involvement and the business itself. His story isn’t that dramatic or transformational– no epiphanies, no crises, just caring about the market segment. I don’t know whether pushing deeper, or being more quirky, or being more revealing, will ultimately make ThisGuy so interesting people what to stay with “him” as much as with this business. Food for thought…


John Tropea June 8, 2011 at 10:07 pm

I kind of posted something in relation to this, see the knowledge secrecy heading

In this post I too talk about generating a community, once people are comfortable and feel connection (belong/ownership) it’s harder to get them to move, even though another offering may be better in lots of ways (including price, location, etc…)

I think people tend to move elsewhere if everyone else moves…they follow the relationships…peer influence.

From a KM perspective in relation to people hoarding their knowledge in fear of being replaced:

When you share you are not just a dynamic performer, but you are also helping everyone else to be one as well, and that is reason for the company to actually hold on to you…it’s doing wonders for celebrity chefs.

A link on belonging/ownership (which contains many links within):

cv harquail June 9, 2011 at 4:51 pm

Hi John- I just love that insight about (what I call) the triple-whammy of sharing– good for me, good for you, good for ‘all of us’.
Thinking about the individual vs. group experiences of sharing, it’s been shown that when people think of themselves as group members, they contribute to the group b/c it is simultaneously using the ‘good’ for themselves and also sharing it with the group. Oddly, sharing can make you less replaceable, but it really seems to require that we feel confident that the well of what we have to offer will never run dry. mindset of plenty vs. mindset of scarcity.

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