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Doing "Different" Right: Ten Big-Time Difference Makers and How They Made Some Serious Dough Thinking Outside the Box
By Maribeth Kuzmeski

If you're looking for ways to set your business apart in this economy, look no further. There has never been a better time to be different. Here are ten companies that have done "different" better than the rest.

In today's business world, "business as usual" is likely to put you out of business. If you're using the same old marketing strategies today because they brought in business in years past, you're in danger of being pummeled by your competition. In order to keep your customers happy (and happily spending!), you have to get their attention, and that means your typical tried-and-true marketing tactics aren't going to cut it anymore. To beat your competition, you have to stand out and find ways to be you - uniquely!

With all the noise in your clients' and potential clients' daily lives, it certainly hasn't become any easier to attract attention and appeal to your target market. But for your business to survive, you have to find ways to cut through that noise. Attracting attention often means that you have to step outside of the current norms and stand out.

If you aren't sure where to get started, take a cue from other companies that have taken innovation to heart and used it to successfully win and keep customers.

Read on for some innovation inspiration from companies that found ways to make their customers take notice - while sticking with their values:

The Difference Maker: Buc-ee's
The Dared to Be Difference: Banking on bathrooms. Sometimes what your competitors consider to be "unimportant" may just turn out to be the differentiation that gets customers coming back for more. Buc-ee's gas stations—located throughout Texas—have focused their number-one offering on what people dread most about stopping at a gas station: the bathrooms! Each of the 30 locations has incredibly clean, substantially sized bathrooms, along with full-time attendants to keep them in tip-top shape. Buc-ee's built their entire business around the bathrooms—a feature they knew they could use to differentiate their business.

This is a great example of how looking at things from a different perspective can really pay off. Instead of focusing on what clients liked about their industry, they chose to plan their strategy around what customers liked the least and improve upon it. Think about what people dislike most about your industry, service, or product offering. What solutions can you offer? It's a great way to differentiate yourself from your competition and to create some buzz in the process!

The Difference Maker: Odwalla
The Dared to Be Difference: Juicing with a conscience. Juice company Odwalla was founded in Santa Cruz, California, in 1980 by Greg Steltenpohl, Gerry Percy, and Bonnie Bassett. The trio took the idea of selling fruit juices from a business guidebook. They began by squeezing orange juice with a secondhand juicer in a shed in Steltenpohl's backyard. Their plan was to make enough profit to help fund music programs in local schools.

Odwalla was driven by a corporate conscience and a goal of leading the public toward a closer to-nature way of nourishing their bodies. The juices were very highly rated for taste. But the true success came in the way that they appealed to their customers. The founders hired marketing and advertising experts and created what they called their "Drink Tank"-a group responsible for developing and managing the Odwalla brand. In building the brand, members of the "Drink Tank" focused on authenticity, alignment, clear narrative, and the value of a strong corporate culture.

With very little advertising, Odwalla differentiated their brand by extolling the benefits of drinking and supporting a "juice with a conscience." As a result, people cared and followed and bought. Odwalla appealed to their customers' consciences and it paid off. Essentially, they called their customers' consciences to action. But the strength of that call to action led them to success. How strong is your call to action? Do you frequently tell your customers what you want them to do? It can be an incredible way to drive your customers and potential customers to do exactly what you want them to do.

The Difference Maker: Geico
The Dared to Be Difference: Ensuring brand awareness. When you think Geico, what comes to mind? Perhaps their slogan, "Fifteen minutes could save you 15 percent or more...." Or maybe that gecko with the British accent. Or the stack of money with the eyeballs that seems to distract and attract everyone near it. Or those oft-offended cavemen. Or maybe - just maybe - you think of all four! Geico has done a particularly remarkable job at grabbing attention for their insurance products. And they've done it by frequently and consistently distributing their simple and somewhat annoying messages to establish brand awareness.

For Geico, frequency of their messages has brought them incredible brand awareness. You don't have to have millions to spend on TV, radio, and print advertising to achieve the level of recognition Geico has achieved. What Geico has done is simply repeat, over and over, their message to their prospects. Think about what you can do to repeat your marketing messages to your target market. Do you frequently repeat your core benefits or offerings to your prospects? It's a simple tactic that can yield high results.

The Difference Maker: The Australian Government
The Dared to Be Difference: Offering the world's best job. The Australian Government promoted what they described simply as "the best job in the world" with a creative and extremely successful Internet campaign. The position they were advertising was a six-month contract to be caretaker of a series of islands in the Great Barrier Reef. The government released the story through traditional media (Reuters) and then sustained the buzz over an array of online networks including YouTube, Ning, Twitter, and Facebook. The contest's website received one million hits the day after its launch when the campaign's goal had been to receive just 400,000 hits over the course of the year. Furthermore, the program attracted over 34,000 applicants and generated over $70 million worth of global publicity.

The lesson here is an important one. You have to evoke an emotion in your customers if you want a response from them. Whether it's hope, love, happiness, anger, or even hate, you want them to feel something. When people are passionate about something, they will act on it, tell their friends about it, and get involved. Think about what messages your company can convey that might provoke an intense reaction.

The Difference Maker: Vistaprint
The Dared to Be Difference: Giving it away for free. As a global company, Vistaprint employs more than 1,850 people, and ships to more than 120 countries around the world. The secret to their huge success? Business cards. Vistaprint wanted to offer their customers something that no other printing company did, so they decided that their hallmark would be jaw-dropping value. By offering 250 business cards for free, with a nominal $5.67 shipping and processing charge, they were able to appeal to their target market: cost-conscious small businesses. Today, 66 percent of Vistaprint's business comes from returning customers. In the first quarter of 2010 alone, they acquired 1.4 million new customers - many who started with a free order.

If you offer something of real value for free, people will listen. In fact, "free" can convert price shoppers into very loyal customers. Don't concentrate on the money you may lose by giving away something. Instead, focus on the potential revenue that you could bring in. After all, those free business cards allowed Vistaprint to convert a typical commodity service - printing - into a company that generated over $500 million in revenue in 2009.

The Difference Maker: The Bargains Group
The Dared to Be Difference: Teaming up for A-level customer service. Jody Steinhauer began The Bargains Group in 1988 from her kitchen table by purchasing a variety of different clothing and reselling it to discount clothing stores. Today, she runs a multi-million-dollar firm with over 4,000 different items for sale, but the most interesting aspect of the company is its employees.

The Bargains Group is a discount wholesaler of promotional business products, family clothing, accessories, gifts, toys, bedding and linens, personal hygiene products, and tradeshow promotional materials. So how exactly does a small firm with only 20 employees manage to make millions every year without offering prices much lower than their competitors? It's simple: They hire the right people. By focusing on hiring fun, vivacious people who believe strongly in the culture of service, they are able to actually service each of their customers personally. They don't even have a voicemail system!

While a lot of firms advertise how "different" their people are, or how they focus on service, The Bargains Group actually proves this assertion. They don't advertise or employ salespeople - yet they manage to make millions of dollars selling their products. Make sure that your staff is a differentiator for your company. There is great value in good customer service. Happy customers will not only stick around, they will also spread the word!

The Difference Maker: Dillard's Septic Service
The Dared to Be Difference: Doing the dirty work (literally). James Dillard, owner of Dillard's Septic Service in Annapolis, Maryland, runs a business that most others might consider "beneath" them. Yet Dillard earns a six-figure income doing what many of us would call mundane, boring, or downright disgusting. An October 10, 2007, article in USA Today by Del Jones, entitled "A Dirty Job, But Someone Has to Get Rich Doing It," featured Dillard and other business owners who have entered into careers that many others simply would not. And it is a potential avenue for business owners who are looking for a way to generate more income. In fact, in the Forbes 400 list of the wealthiest Americans for 2009, less than glamorous fields and products - including discount tires, roofing, salsa, lumber, and tequila - have produced extraordinary income.

You might not consider these to be businesses that would create such great wealth. But all of these business owners found their niche, and, through it, their differentiation. Think about a product or service that you can offer that no one else will. You don't always have to be wracking your brain to come up with a product or service that is better than anything your competitors offer. You can also come up with a product or service that they simply won't offer. Products or services that others are afraid to touch can mean big opportunities for you!

The Difference Maker: Man Cave
The Dared to Be Difference: "Manning" up before the rest. Who would have thought a Tupperware-type party for men would be a good idea? Cofounders Nick Beste and Kevin Carlow saw the success stories from female-centric companies like Tupperware, Silpada, and Partylite and thought, why not? As a result, they created Man Cave, an in-home party where hosts throw "Meatings" complete with a set of "Man Laws." For years, thousands of companies have demonstrated and sold products to groups of women in their homes. Now Man Cave does it for men. They aren't just the leader in their industry; they ARE the industry.

Don't shy away from an idea just because it's never been done before. In fact, discovering an untapped market can be like striking gold in this economy. Instead of following trends, you have to be brave enough to be a trendsetter. It can be the gateway to a big idea and a big payoff.

The Difference Maker: Realtor and Inventor Jean Newell
The Dared to Be Difference: Recognizing it's not what you know, it's who you know. Veteran Realtor Jean Newell had an idea for her fellow real estate agents. She invented a personal utility pouch (PUP) - a multi-zippered mini-pack designed to carry all the technical tools, keys, contracts, and more that a real estate agent needs. Judging by the initial reaction she received, she knew she was on to something that people wanted. Her objective was to get on QVC, but she was turned down by gatekeepers again and again.

So she decided to reach out to her network, which consisted of other agents, buyers, sellers, etc., and ask for their help. She sent out an email requesting help to find a contact person at QVC for her new product and received an overwhelming response. Within a few days, she had 40 emails from people providing contacts at QVC. She created a quick video to show how she would promote the bag and sent it off to QVC. Within two weeks, she was accepted! Since her initial appearance on QVC, Newell has become a sales superstar and media darling.

A great idea is just an idea unless you can get it into the right hands. It's vital for you to find ways to leverage what you have to offer. Get in front of people who can connect you to the places you want to be - it can be anybody - and don't be afraid to ask the people you know. Leveraging your connections can be the difference between making it and breaking it right now, so you really can't afford not to.

The Difference Maker: Toy House
The Dared to Be Difference: Advertising curiosity. In Jackson, Michigan, a city and state hit hard by the economy, toy store owner Phil Wrzesinski was struggling to compete against local big box competitors like Toys "R" Us, Target, and Walmart. And then he had an idea. In August 2008 he began running ads on the local radio station that had local DJs wondering what was in the men's bathroom of the store. Droves of customers started coming in to see what actually was in the men's bathroom. (The product in question, by the way, was a nightlight that projects stars on to the ceiling and walls of a darkened room.) The result? Despite the down economy, Toy House has seen a steady increase in both loyalty and sales ever since!

Just because your product may be ordinary, it doesn't mean your promotion of it has to be. Clever advertising can peak interest, create buzz, and get people talking - exactly what you want at a time like this. Don't be afraid to take risks with your promotion. Show that your company has an edge. It will set you apart from your competitors.

To beat your competition in today's economy, you have to be offering something that no one else is - be it a unique product, promotion, offer, staff, or culture. You can't expect to keep customers coming back if you are offering only the status quo. Don't be afraid to take risks, think outside the box, and be a little daring. Not only will you grow your business, you'll find yourself inspired, recharged, and motivated.

About the Author:
Maribeth Kuzmeski, MBA, is the author of five books. She is the founder of Red Zone Marketing, LLC, which consults with businesses from entrepreneurial firms to Fortune 500 corporations on strategic marketing planning and business growth. Maribeth has personally consulted with some of the world's most successful CEOs, entrepreneurs, and professionals. An internationally recognized speaker, she shares the tactics that businesspeople use today to create more sustainable business relationships, sales, and marketing successes.

She is an international keynote speaker and regularly speaks to audiences on topics relating to business development, marketing, and sales strategies. She is also a member of Entrepreneurs' Organization (EO) and is a regular media contributor appearing on Fox News, ABC News, WGN-TV, and in publications such as The New York Times, BusinessWeek, Entrepreneur, and Forbes. For more information, please visit www.RedZoneMarketing.com and www.AndTheClientsWentWild.com.
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