The Internet has changed how people buy stuff. A few years ago, if you owned a hardware store, your only competition was the other hardware store in your local area. All you needed to do to attract new business was having friendlier staff, lower prices or to send coupons or an add in Sunday's paper.
But now, you're competing against every other hardware store in the country, so better customer service, lower prices and better promotions just don't cut it anymore. You might claim that your products are better and your customer service is better, but even if you're right that's the exact same thing 500 other companies are claiming.
People talk about things that are different. Not better, but different. Seth Godin wrote a book called "Purple Cow", in which he explains that nobody talks about a cow that is a little heavier, or a little taller, but everyone would tell their friends if they saw a "Purple Cow". Just to be clear: one-upping your competition doesn't make you different, and it doesn't make you better in your customers' eyes either. Do you know how many companies failed trying to build "a social network just like Facebook but with an additional feature that will "change the game"? That's Boring. Facebook took off because it was something new, something different before anyone else.
In Prague, Czech Republic, where it is very cold - there's an ice bar. Everybody in town talks about the ice bar. There's nothing different about the rest of the club: music, drinks and people dancing. But because there's an ice bar, this club is always full.
In Canada, there are many donut stores in every suburb, but only one that always has a 50-person line (even at 2am): Voodoo Doughnuts. Their doughnuts look unlike any other donut you've seen before, and that's why people talk about them.
How Can You Be Unique? A few years ago I developed a plan to take any business model (no matter how boring) and turn it into something unique. Basically you make a list of all the assumptions in a given industry, and then you come up with different ways to challenge those assumptions.
Below is an example of how this framework can be used for a restaurant. Keep in mind that the goal of a brainstorming session is to come up with as many ideas as you can, no matter how stupid they are. All you need is one great idea and in my experience, you need at least 10-20 ideas to come up with a great one.
While these are beyond what you would expect, by having some fun with it, you may uncover the one "different" idea that becomes remarkable and stands out like a "Purple Cow"
Be Different, not just Better.
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