John Hall is the co-founder and president of Calendar, a leading scheduling and time app. He authored the best-selling book Top of Mind; writes weekly columns for Forbes and Inc.; and has contributed to more than 50 online publications, including Harvard Business Review, Fortune, Fast Company, and Mashable. John is consistently called a top influencer, leader, and speaker that people should pay attention to.
Here is John’s article about using technology as a differentiator, which first appeared on Forbes.com.
This is a phenomenal time for brand building, and new and lucrative shortcuts crop up every day. You can now create an online store, target on Instagram, order inventory as you need it instead of being strapped with excess, and be up and running in a day. What a time to be alive.
But that pendulum swings both ways, and for every action, there’s an equal and opposite reaction. In industries where products are usually quite similar, the brands that are investing heavily in the technical specs of their product are winning.
Shirts, sunglasses, watches, and other items are capitalizing most from Instagram because they’re disposable items to many consumers, minus diehard collectors. In turn, performance brands are seeing the best results with items that promise comfort.
To some, a chair will always be a chair and a bed will always be a bed. But if you look at these industries, their winning brands are built on both industry-exclusive technology and a premium on performance.
Bringing High-Tech Shoe Performance to Office Chairs
Go to the Nike or adidas headquarters, and you’ll see a performance lab. The brand has invested millions in testing new materials, as well as researching ways in which different strides hit the ground and how shoes could be adjusted for maximum flexibility and comfort. At one point, people just thought of shoes as shoes. These days, we don’t.
Haworth is looking to do the same for the chair. Its headquarters is similar, with the same kind of lab-testing materials, digital knitting, and pressure points; the brand is interested in determining how people use chairs differently. Out of its studies came Fern, an office chair without edges. Haworth identified that even the best performance chair still had hard edges that a user would feel, inhibiting their range of motion. You can’t build a chair without support, but the brand sought a way to add that support down the middle of the base like a leaf (hence the name).
It’s common to have shoes customized to fit your foot size, width, and other specifications. This brand learned from that model, offering custom-knit chairs for performance needs and color. Wired gave the brand high marks, and its sales reflect that positivity—the company posted 2019 results of $2.25 billion, a 5% increase. The goal—making sure performance isn’t lost—has led the brand to capitalize on the idea that people will work better when the items in their office work with and for them.
Changing the Supply Chain When Others Are Focused on Podcasts
Some of us don’t have a set office, roaming from Starbucks to Starbucks. But everyone sleeps—don’t let the hustle culture convince you otherwise. With so many people sleeping fewer hours, the sleep they get needs to be high-quality. Bedding startups have popped out of the woodwork over the past few years; you’ve likely seen ads for them all over your social media and on your favorite podcasts.
Analysts are betting on Purple, the only sleep company currently using its own technology and manufacturing its own mattress. The first publicly traded mattress-in-a-box company as of 2018, the company has spent recent years sneaking up on well-known competitor Casper. The Salt Lake City-based company earned positive reviews from Business Insider, which called it an “excellent investment;” it was a J.D. Power No. 1 ranking in customer satisfaction in 2019. Its current market cap is just shy of $1 billion.
Purple made two simple bets: The first was that people would become increasingly comfortable with buying a mattress online. With the advent of this new business model, Purple could enter the market as a DTC brand.
The second bet Purple made was that, over time, the bed-in-a-box category would grow; consumers would eventually gravitate toward something with a higher level of quality. Thanks to a highly saturated market of competitors, people have. With Casper, Leesa, Nectar, and others competing for market share, it’s easy to get in the game. These competitors order from the same overseas manufacturer and implement a killer marketing strategy to succeed. Minus a few slight differences, they’re all selling the same product.
Not only does Purple make its own beds, but it also makes the machines that make the beds. As the market is seeing with Casper’s IPO, there’s not a lot of confidence that this industry segment will grow without differentiated products.
Invest in Trust, Not Convenience
Dog-walking apps were inevitable in the sharing economy. Wag! quickly raised $300 million and advertised feverishly to gain market share. But late last year, SoftBank, its major investor, took a loss and sold its 50% stake back to the company.
At first glance, Rover and Wag! look the same: Both offer handlers to care for your dog, walk your dog, or board your dog overnight. Rather than market heavily, Rover focuses on customization and user experience; gig economy workers can set their own prices, and dog owners can search and choose who they want. Wag! offers set prices; someone is automatically assigned to users when they use the app, which maximizes convenience. Vox compares Rover to Airbnb, rather than Uber, because of that choice aspect.
That’s a slight shift, but it’s a big one. Pet owners are highly discerning about who they trust with their pet. And yes, it seems we should be just as discerning about who drives us somewhere or handles our food, but the data proves that’s just not the case. We’ll jump into a stranger’s car, but we won’t let just anyone walk our dog—and the market adapts to customer demand.
Rover, understanding this, spent its money making sure its product could facilitate this, even if people discovered a competitor first. It’s a tough strategy to stick to when you’re losing market share and awareness, but it’s paid off in the long run—this is how many gig economy platforms operate today.
The moral of all these stories is simple: In categories where products are similar, you’re going to see a natural propensity to spend more on marketing to differentiate on brand. Often, however, the best differentiator is how the product itself performs. In the end, people will always find the best product—and that kind of loyalty can outweigh any attention-getting marketing tactics.