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Don’t Make Them Search

How to ensure your brand stands out in a sea of sameness

For children who grew up in the 1980s and 1990s, meticulously combing through dizzying puzzle pages in pursuit of spotting the lone, eponymous wanderer at the center of Where’s Waldo? was a beloved pastime. Those children have grown into today’s consumers, but when it comes to choosing a company or product to adopt, they aren’t nearly as invested in the search. Finding Waldo provides hours of rapt entertainment to a child, but brands who want to stand out can’t count on that level of attention.

If Waldo truly wanted to stand out amongst a red-and-white striped sea of similarity, he would have stopped wearing a slightly different version of everyone else’s outfit. To be found, he should have held up a mirror. Organizations who refuse to send customers on a Where’s Waldo?-style search understand reflecting the needs of customers must come before extolling features and benefits—and in competitive markets brimming with seemingly endless options and indistinguishable services, differentiation is the key to standing out. Despite this, too many business end up just like Waldo: blended in with the crowd, desperately hoping a few will try hard enough to find them.

Differentiation is how a company wins new customers, and a huge component of what gives employees pride in their efforts. However, for companies in very competitive or commodity markets, it’s often the case that product features and benefits match those of competitors. When products and services are indistinguishable, that makes differentiation all the more important—a process that begins with story. Effective brand stories don’t rehash features and benefits—they clearly and authentically articulate an organization’s purpose, and how it best empowers and serves customers. The nature of this connection can be unique to one brand, even if the products are not, and customers will not only gravitate toward authenticity, but if they see parts of themselves within a brand’s narrative, they’ll be receptive to the gifts the organization offers.

The entire product line offered by beauty brand Dove offers no meaningful differentiator from competitors. After all, soap is soap. Yet Dove has differentiated itself very effectively by leaning heavily on its purpose: Dove is uniquely the brand all women can see themselves in. Dove believes at its core that beauty should be a source of confidence for all women—going so far as to define beauty not in aesthetic terms, but as feeling like the best version of one’s self.

In the early 2000s, the brand launched their Campaign For Real Beauty. Other beauty brands all touted the same skin-surface fresh and breezy marketing that linked scented bodywash with sexual attraction. Dove rejected that approach, leaned into its purpose, and thought like its customers: women. This move made Dove and its products more relatable and accessible—especially to women who felt aligned with values of authenticity and realness. Dove decided not to differentiate around lotion formulas, and instead found something much more powerful to connect with their audience.

Dove’s research found that “7 in 10 women believe they get more compliments about how they look than on their professional achievements.” So, in 2016, the brand kicked off its #MyBeautyMySay campaign, which featured women defining beauty for themselves. By linking its beauty and bodywash products with a commitment to foster women and girls’ self-esteem, Dove is reinforcing its strategic narrative around female empowerment and making its voice more unique than any changes to product.

Over ten years, the Real Beauty campaign has turbocharged Dove’s annual sales from $2 billion to $4 billion. Dove, once synonymous with a white bar of soap, has turned its purpose and story into a differentiator that is impossible for competitors to imitate.

Challenges around differentiation are well-known in the consumer package goods industry. Most product-driven firms, however similar to competitors, will have something unique about them. The challenge of differentiation becomes even more acute for service companies, or brands who fall into the category of having a non-tangible differentiator, such as “service.” That demands finding a creative way to convince customers a company is unique—whether that’s true or not. 

Geico was created in 1936 as an auto insurance agency for government employees and enlisted military officers. For the first sixty years of its history, Geico looked like any other insurance company: dry, humorless, and no-nonsense. Although a service, insurance functions like any other commodity: if two policies provide comparable coverage, price becomes the sole differentiator. In the face of this reality, insurance companies have spent decades trying to position service or independent local agents as what sets them apart—but as that messaging also became increasingly similar, it failed as a differentiator, even if authentic in select cases.

Then, in 1994, Geico found its differentiator. In research for the insurer, the Martin Agency found that in 15 minutes, callers to Geico could save 15 percent or more on their insurance.  Yes, this became one of advertising’s great taglines, but it also changed the way people thought about insurance. Geico knew that saving money would motivate people to switch insurers, but that this in and of itself was not unique. Instead, Geico highlighted an even more important savings: time. The promise of convenience—savings realized in less time than solving a Where’s Waldo? page—was what truly set Geico apart.

25 years after embarking on this strategic shift in its story, Geico continues to successfully capitalize on its competitive advantage. A key element of that has been signaling its difference from competitors beyond the tagline, thanks to ads that feature affable characters, charming irreverence, and a camel who gets hyped for Hump Day. Geico has signaled to customers clearly that it’s not like the other players, and combines that with a simple, memorable promise that keeps it at the top of the insurance industry.

Every brand knows that delivering superb customer service is important to winning repeat business and fueling word of mouth. Like Geico’s competitors, when a brand’s products and services are nearly identical to a dozen other companies, it’s common (and all too easy) to fall back on great customer service as a differentiator. With every company touting “great service,” it is a failed promise or differentiator, unless it’s actually provided in a meaningful, unique way. Good customer service only differentiates when its truly a good customer experience.

Not only will people pay more for a higher quality customer experience, but when good service leaves a lasting impression on consumers, brand loyalty is forged—and not easily broken. This type of experience-oriented differentiation is sustainable, and if done properly, can be maintained long past a product’s popularity.

A 2023 HundredX and Forbes study analyzed more than 4 million pieces of consumer feedback on over 3,000 businesses during the year and placed Trader Joe’s at the top of food retailers list. And, in the 2022 American Customer Satisfaction Index Retail and Consumer Shipping Study which is based on interviews with more than 35,000 customers, Trader Joe’s ranked first for food retailers as well.  

Grocery stores suffer from the same challenges facing all retail. But Trader Joe’s is counting on more than just Joe-Joes and frozen mandarin chicken to keep customers happy. Pleasant in-store service is only one factor singled out by fans of the brand. Localized, easy-to-navigate store layouts, specialty private-label products, and a careful selection of products that ignores breadth for delight all contribute to an experience of which service is a piece. Staff members are encouraged to take ownership of their successes, and they contribute to a cohesive whole that allows Trader Joe’s to dominate on service as their differentiator, while never having to tout it.

When a child cracks open a new Where’s Waldo? book, they’re eager to hunt for Waldo, and find him no matter how unlikely he is to stand out. Customers seeking a new product don’t have that single-minded focus: brands need to stand out clearly, and connect with audiences as compellingly as possible. Doing so requires moving beyond features and benefits and ignoring overused approaches such as service. The companies who successfully differentiate let their customers know they share their purpose, and invite them to stop scouring the market for a cheaper competitor.

Rachel Fox is the Head of People and Culture at Woden. Read our extensive guide on how to craft your organization’s narrative, or send us an email at to uncover what makes you essential.