Sustainable Differentiation

By Steve McKee President, McKee Wallwork Cleveland | May 19, 2010

Traveling is hard. Being away from home, eating out, sleeping in an unfamiliar bed-not to mention the nightmares of airports and airlines-make even the most hardened road warrior appreciate small niceties.

It was one of those niceties that brightened my life one day in March, 2003. I was attending the Inc. 500 conference in Palm Springs, California and I rolled out of bed before dawn to get to an early seminar. I shuffled my sleepy feet into the bathroom and turned on the water. Stepping into the shower, I tugged on the curtain. To my surprise (and delight), there was no vortex of air sucking six feet of sticky vinyl into me, the usual behavior of unruly shower curtains. In fact, the curtain wasn't crowding me at all. I had room to move.

I looked up and saw what struck me as one of the most brilliant inventions of all time: The curved shower curtain rod. What a brilliant concept, I thought. How simple. How obvious. How come nobody ever thought of this before? I was happy - and grateful, not only to the brilliant inventor who came up with the concept but also to the hotel that was thoughtful enough to install it.

Now here's the bad news. I don't remember where I was staying. This terrific invention, this fabulous innovation, this morning-making milestone which could have made the difference next time I booked a room didn't have a lasting impact. Other hotels started adopting the feature and I lost track of who was first. The curved shower curtain rod was great news for the frequent traveler but provided no lasting differentiation for any one brand.

That's the problem with product improvements. Shower curtain rods, new beds, special pillows, free breakfast buffets-all are nice features, but none offer sustainable differentiation. Sure, they can offer tactical advantages for a period of time, but like any successful innovations they will be duplicated if they can't be patented. And even if they are patented they can usually be matched by crafty imitations.

So what's a hotel brand to do? How can it achieve differentiation that is real, meaningful and sustainable? The answer lies not in pursuing left-brain benefits but in fostering right-brain connections. Successful differentiation takes place not in the minds of your target, but in their hearts.

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Guest Service: A Culture of YES

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