Beyond product benefits: brand differentiation in commoditized categories

How looking outside yourself can uncover meaningful difference

Differentiating a commoditized product or service is no easy feat, and it’s even more challenging for complex businesses. In industries like financial services, technology, and higher education, consumers face long sales cycles and big financial commitments. Choice overload only makes these high-stakes decisions more difficult.

Adding to these hurdles is the way that many brands position their products and services. Typically, companies focus on how their product stacks up to those of their competitors. A faster transaction experience or first-of-its-kind feature may seem like worthy competitive advantages—but these distinctions are often more exciting to your in-house teams than your customers, who aren’t entrenched in your world every day. This lens also fails to account for the rapid pace of innovation. It’s not likely that you’ll be the only one with these benefits for long.

In fact, a “self-centered” focus on benefits detracts from the broader context of what your brand offers externally. At Sullivan, we focus on four key areas that go beyond product-level benefits to uncover differentiation:

  • Audience: What about your target audience is different? Have you built something for a unique group of people? A certain mindset?
  • Experience: At the highest level, what is the customer experience like and are there points in the journey that are different? Is it more fun? Better supported? More empowering? Simpler? More personalized?
  • Outcomes: Are outcomes different? Even though features or services overlap, what about your business makes customers happy, and what does success look like for them? What effects does your service have on their relationships, income, family, professional trajectory, or company?
  • Purpose: Do you and your audience have a shared purpose in common? Is there a mutual belief that drives their engagement with you and that you can highlight as authentic and meaningful?

This framework can help find differentiation in even the most complicated products and businesses. When partnering with Evergreen Trading, a company in the little-understood category of corporate trade, we identified two areas where we could identify differentiation: audience and experience.

Corporate trade allows companies to turn unwanted assets into media credits for future spend. As such, the category has long focused on CFOs and Chief Procurement Officers who quickly see the value in converting potential lost assets to media credits without taking a hit to the bottom line. This left out a crucial audience: the CMOs who work with corporate trade companies to use media credits within their marketing plans. Evergreen had the opportunity to speak more to these CMOs, nurturing long-term relationships to show how corporate trade can be a smart business strategy. Their new brand now sounds and looks less like a procurement-driven dealmaker and more like the other creative, collaborative agencies CMOs work with every day.

Additionally, we found that Evergreen delivers a customer experience that’s hard to beat—a fact that wasn’t as obvious to their own teams but makes a world of difference to their clients. Our strategy uncovered that unlike competitors, Evergreen worked hard to develop relationships, clarify the corporate trade process and value, understand CMOs’ objectives, and work hand-in-hand with partners to invest in the right media for future marketing plans. Emphasizing their distinctively supportive, long-term relationships was critical in bringing to life an authentic and differentiated brand.

Ultimately, a brand symbolizes the relationship you have with your customers, one that should grow deeper over time. Like any meaningful relationship, those you cultivate through your brand shouldn’t be founded on your own superficial qualities or surface-level benefits. Instead, steward long-term loyalty by focusing on them: their unique mindsets, their overall experience, the outcomes they hope for, and the purpose you share. With this in mind, you’ll differentiate your brand—and create unparalleled relationships for your business.