When you seek differentiation and innovation, don't expect to find it by sniffing around at your competitors.

I came across a story in the Bradenton Herald that offered branding advice from a local advertising guy. He suggests “…differentiating yourself from the competition is essential. But how can you find out enough about your competition to accomplish this? Are there ways to harvest valuable data from your competitors without resorting to deception? First, hang out where your competitors schmooze – at industry trade associations. Not surprisingly, your competitors are more likely to be forthcoming with information at association meetings, conventions and social events.”

Let me beg to differ. Hanging out at industry trade associations is like hanging out with a pack of (please forgive the metaphor) butt-sniffing dogs. All you’re likely to find out is who is the biggest, baddest dog in your industry. Don’t expect to find ideas for innovation or differentiation from people who are attempting to do the same thing as you. If you copy from them, are you differentiating? No. Are you likely to get fresh ideas? No. The best you can hope for is for some ideas on processes and practices that might make you more efficient. But, ideas to make you stand apart from your competition? Forget it. They won’t be shared.

You’d be much better off seeking the convention of an entirely different industry that shares some characteristics with your own. If you’re a chiropractor, look for a service industry that shares some characteristics with yours. How about a plumber’s convention? We only call plumbers (and chiropractors) when we need them. Most of the time we need to see them right away. And the plumbers will be delighted to share information with you, because you are NOT a competitor.

Henry Ford did not get the idea for the assembly line from visiting with other automobile manufacturers. He visited a meat processing facility and witnessed an un-assembly line.

The story from Bradenton also suggests that you obtain information about your publicly traded competitors from their SEC reports. Again, I suggest that you’ll find little useful information about innovation and differentiation here. Most public companies got big through innovation, but when Wall Street starts putting pressure on, the innovation slows down. What’s more likely to happen if you start poring over 10Q and 10K reports, is that you develop a severe case of paralysis by analysis.

If you’re a small, entrepreneurial business looking to differentiate yourself from the competition, focus on the ONE asset you have that NONE of your competitors have: YOU! Do YOUR best. Be the greatest YOU can be. And, make sure your customers know that you care about them. Let the butt-sniffing dogs have their meetings.

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