Right before Apple introduced the Phone, Rim’s Blackberry dominated the cellphone market. It distanced itself from the industry with easy ways to integrate corporate email, larger and larger screens, QWERTY keyboards, and predictive text functions. The Blackberry was more than a phone; it was a handheld email platform that made phone calls. 

Then smartphones took over the market with more and with less.

Rim focused on corporate email and expected the competition to do the same. But innovators don’t attack in the expected places. They cede the fight where incumbents are strong and attack where they’re weak. First-generation iPhones didn’t make corporate email easier, instead, they offered clean aesthetics, rotating touch screens, and a marketplace of 3rd party apps.  While Blackberries enabled owners to type detailed messages, early models repeated characccters alll offf thhe timme because the screen offered no feedback like buttons. Many iPhone owners placed standing apologies in their signatures. “This message was sent using an iPhone. Apologies for any typos.”  But the iPhone succeeded anyway.

Distinctive Means Deficient

Compare any successful innovative product to its traditional competitor and the deficiencies will glow like a beacon. Vacuums emphasize suction, attachments, and filters. Manufacturers demonstrate suction by sprinkling dirt on the rug in side-by-side comparisons or having vacuums suck bowling balls off of the ground. Models offer attachments for steps, curtains, and pet hair. They promise air purification through hypoallergenic filters. But not everyone plays that game. Roomba makes the iRobot, an autonomous sweeper that is vastly different than traditional vacuums. Once set in motion, it blindly feels its way around the room cleaning all the while. It promises to clean hardwood and carpeted floors but it doesn’t do curtains. It doesn’t clean steps and it can’t suck a bowling ball off of the ground. But customers don’t care.

Circuses are family-friendly. They use animals and headliners to attract bigger crowds. They feature tightrope walkers willing to risk life and limb, lion tamers foolish enough to toy with predators many times their size, and acrobats on par with Olympic gymnasts. Circuses provide reasonably priced entertainment for the entire family. But not Cirque du Soleil. There are no animals or tightrope acts. No customer can name one Cirque performer. If an act failed to perform one show customers would not even notice. And there is nothing family-friendly about the ticket prices; one hundred dollar seats are not meant for sugar-filled preschoolers. They are meant to limit sugar-filled preschoolers. Yet there are nearly 20 running shows at any time while traditional circuses approach extinction. 

Customers Need Easy Choices

The difference between a phone with a 4-inch screen and another that is 4.1 inches or 8 million pixel camera versus 8.2 isn’t significant. Three vacuum attachments versus two are not compelling. Distinction is. It is something that exists in a category alone. 

Customers understand that unique products won’t compare favorably. They won’t compare at all! No one bought the first generation iPhone because it made typing long emails easy. No one bought an iRobot to clean draperies or purchased a Cirque ticket because of a headliner. Comparisons are only relevant when the items are similar. Distinctive means deficient. But no one cares!