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You can’t think your way out of this one

In today’s world, it’s very rare for a product or service to have functional differentiation. That’s when you have a clearly differentiating feature that the other guys don’t have. Even if you do have it, technology has made it easy for competitors to spin up competing solutions. That makes it difficult at best to maintain your differentiation for very long.

Yet within this new reality, we still see organizations relying on a strategic thinking process bent on defining functional differentiation. Do we believe that if we just think a little harder we can bring back the days when functional differentiation was enough?

Maybe it’s time to think a little differently.

I have done a lot of work with financial services organizations. If there ever was an industry where parity runs rampant, it’s this one. I was working recently with a bank that had an offering that suffered from this parity. The offering had some functional attributes that had some benefit. But there was no one thing that separated it from the competition. Instead the brand needed to rely on a mix of attributes.

This is not unusual today. Many brands rely on this mix or ‘special sauce’ in order to muster anything close to a sense of uniqueness. Unfortunately, a mix of average attributes doesn’t magically create something memorable. It’s just not all that inspiring to our prospects.

In today’s environment, we simply cannot rely solely on rational thinking — no matter how strategic we are. In other words, we can’t just think our way out.

Yes, strategy is important. But if we are not helping our prospects feel anything, then it’s all for naught.

There is no better way to help our prospects feel something than to identify the Big Audacious Meaning of the brand. That’s the difference the brand can make in a life, a community, or even the world. This is the profound purpose that can inspire prospects. That’s something that no mix of functional attributes can come close to matching.

This is what we did with the bank I mentioned. We went through the strategic exercises. We found a few features that were worth mentioning (functional attributes) and put them together in a mix that achieved a small level of differentiation. We could have said we checked the boxes and called it day. But we knew we weren’t going to move anybody if we stopped here. We needed to find that big thing that would inspire people.

Here’s where we arrived. We found a way to talk about how our offering was going help people create the life that they wanted. It could be in big ways — making big strides and fulfilling big dreams. But it didn’t have to be that. It could be small steps that could lead someone to getting out of debt.

We asked, “What if we could build solutions that allow people to take control and design a life that fits their needs, ultimately giving them incredible confidence.” Think about the difference that can make for them. Think about how much happier it could make someone feel.

It wasn’t just wishful thinking. It is an idea that was founded in our mix of functional attributes, but was brave enough to step beyond the rational thinking to tap into the feeling that would inspire and move people. An idea that could make a real difference in their lives.

When our Big Audacious Meaning emerged, we immediately talked about how exciting it would be for the front line people. We could imagine them being able to sit across from a prospect and tell them how they could help that person along the path to the life that the prospect wanted to create. Think about how much more profound that is than talking about the features of the account or the rewards that the person could earn. Think about how compelling that would be if you were that prospect.

We couldn’t have got there without thinking about the rational side of things. But we also recognized that that’s not where the magic happens. When we let the feeling take the lead, we found it less important to compare ourselves to others. In fact, we found ourselves talking less about ourselves and more about those that we desired to inspire and help.

Ultimately, we didn’t let the thinking get in the way of the big idea (as funny as that sounds). We trusted our gut. Or maybe I should say our hearts. And we ended up with something that didn’t just sound right. It felt right.

Dan is the creator of the Big Audacious Meaning. He is a founder at Will & Grail — a brand innovation company, helping organizations find their unique, undeniable and unshakable sense of purpose and create innovative experiences that bring it to life. He regularly shares his insight here on Linkedin and

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Dan is an expert brand strategist and author of the book Big Audacious Meaning — Unleashing Your Purpose-Driven Story. He is a founder at Will & Grail.

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