Ah, a trick question.
The question isn’t whether differentiation matters — it does — but whether the point you are trying to represent as differentiation matters. In other words, simply being unique and different won’t make one bit of difference if potential clients could care less about the distinction.
This is a challenging issue, in part, because in some situations, things that matter at one point are insignificant at another (except to you, not your clients).
Consider, for example, blogging and online marketing. Way back when, say 12 years ago, blogging was novelty thing, applied by a few advance-guard early adaptors. Most people in business (and most customers) could care less about it. Then about a year before I started this blog, blogging became trendoid. However, reflecting general industry behaviour, the architectural, engineering and construction industry was a bit behind schedule, meaning I had the good fortune to catch the trend just as it became relevant in the marketplace.
Great for differentiation, indeed, and I picked up some really lucrative business in the early years of this blog as a result. The initial “best construction blog” competitions also attracted incredible interest.
Then the idea matured, and became routine. Now blogs are, well, blah. I hate to say it, but this place is more like background noise than the centre of the universe. The differentiation advantage has dissipated.
So if you started a construction blog these days, you wouldn’t want to think of it as a differentiating business quality.
This doesn’t mean that blogging (and many other business initiatives) lack value because they no longer serve a differentiating function. First, the blog can be one tool in your toolbox to amplify your actual differentiation; and second the content generation for the blog will help you in search engine optimization. (Google isn’t “new” any more, but has successfully enhanced, adapted, and modified its model so that it continues to be a highly relevant lead and credibility generating service.)
You can see from this observation why it can (as I noted recently) differentiation can either be very easy or very hard to execute. It is easy if it is truly “there” — that is your customers and you know your unique and different quality, and value it.
But if you are searching for the “differentiator” and not responding to the market — rather you are trying to create a new force that the market will recognize — you have an uphill battle. First you must break through your business’s internal inertia to come up with a concept/focus/mind message that you think really is “different”. And then you have to hope it matters to your potential customers.
How, then do you solve the problem?
I would turn it back to: “If I can see a real problem, I have the answer” — a solution that matters.
Can you do things differently and exceptionally enough that you elicit a “wow”reaction? Is there a behaviour/circumstance in your industry/market that you know people hate. Go opposite, and test. Finally, think about your best projects/clients and customers and do what you can to determine the aspects of the project/relationship that made the most sense and created the most satisfaction. Can you replicate the success?
And yes, I know, the answers to these questions are deadly difficult, if not impossible, unless (it almost seems) you know them without even having to think about them.
Yes, differentiation is both easy and difficult depending on your perception, experiences and market.