What Is Product Differentiation?

Product differentiation is a marketing strategy designed to distinguish a company's products or services from the competition. Successful product differentiation involves identifying and communicating the unique qualities of a product or company while highlighting the distinct differences between that product or company and its competitors. Product differentiation goes hand in hand with developing a strong value proposition so that a product or service is attractive to a target market or audience.

If successful, product differentiation can create a competitive advantage for the product's seller and ultimately build brand awareness. Examples of differentiated products might include the fastest high-speed Internet service or the most gas-efficient electric vehicle on the market.

Key Takeaways

  • Product differentiation depends on consumers' attention to one or more key benefits of a product or brand that make it a better choice than similar products or brands.
  • The elements of differentiation include product design, marketing, packaging, and pricing.
  • A product differentiation strategy should demonstrate that a product has all the features of competing choices but with additional exclusive benefits no one else offers.
  • Companies gain a competitive advantage and market share through product differentiation.
  • Product differentiation increases market competition and controls prices for consumers.
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Product Differentiation

How Product Differentiation Works

Product differentiation is fundamentally a marketing strategy to encourage the consumer to choose one brand or product over another in a crowded field of competitors. It identifies the qualities that set one product apart from other similar products and uses those differences to drive consumer choice.

Differentiation marketing can also involve focusing on a niche market. For example, a small company might find it challenging to compete with a much larger competitor in the same industry. As a result, the smaller company might highlight exceptional service or a money-back guarantee.

Promoting Product Differentiation

The references to a product's differentiating qualities are reflected in the product's packaging and promotion and, often, even in its name. The cat food brand name Fancy Feast implies a high-quality cat food that cats love, and the advertising reinforces that claim. The FreshPet cat food brand highlights its use of natural ingredients. Hill's Science Diet conveys the message that the cat food was developed by animal nutrition experts.

A product differentiation strategy may require adding new functional features or might be as simple as redesigning packaging. Sometimes, differentiation marketing does not require any changes to the product but a new advertising campaign or other promotions.

Measuring Product Differentiation

As stated earlier, the differences between the products can be physical in nature or measurable, such as the lowest-price gym in a region. However, the differences between the products could be more abstract, for example, a car company that claims their cars are the most luxurious on the market. Retailers and designers often spend a significant amount of advertising dollars showing their clothes on young, hip models to emphasize that their clothing is on-trend. In actuality, no company can measure or quantify the level of style their product offers.

As a result, product differentiation is often subjective since it's aimed at altering customers' evaluation of the benefits of one item compared to another. The advertising slogan, "Gets out the toughest stains" implies that a certain detergent brand is more effective than others, but the actual difference in the product compared with competing products might be minuscule or nonexistent.

Nonfunctional Attributes Matter Too

When the functional aspects of two products are identical, as in bottled water, non-functional features can be a differentiator—the packaging or bottle design, for example.

Types of Product Differentiation

Ideally, a product differentiation strategy should demonstrate that the product can do everything the competing choices can but with an additional benefit that is exclusive to that product. Below are a few of the most common strategies employed to differentiate a product or service.

Price

Price can be used to differentiate a product in two ways. Companies can charge the lowest price compared to competitors to attract cost-conscious buyers—the retailer Costco is an example. However, companies can also charge high prices to imply quality and that a product is a luxury or high-end item, such as a Bugatti sports car.

Performance and Reliability

Products can be differentiated based on their reliability and durability. Some batteries, for example, are reputed to have a longer life than other batteries, and consumers will buy them based on this factor.

Location and Service

Local businesses can differentiate themselves from their larger national competitors by emphasizing that they support the local community. A local restaurant, for example, will hire locally and may source its food and ingredients from local farmers and purveyors.

Vertical Product Differentiation vs. Horizontal Product Differentiation

There are two strict forms of product differentiation: horizontal and vertical. In some cases, however, a consumer's choice in a purchase may be a mix of the two.

Vertical Differentiation

An example of vertical differentiation is when customers rank products based on a measurable factor, such as price or quality, and then choose the most highly ranked item.

Although the measurements are objective, each customer chooses to measure a different factor. For example, a restaurant might top one customer's list because their meals are lower in calories. Another customer might choose a different restaurant because the meals are cheaper, and price is the most important factor for them.

Horizontal Differentiation

An example of horizontal differentiation is when customers choose between products based on personal preference rather than an objective measurement.

For example, whether someone chooses a vanilla, chocolate, or strawberry milkshake comes down to personal taste. If most of the products on the market cost about the same and have many of the same features or qualities, the purchase decision is based on subjective preference.

Mixed Differentiation

More complex purchases tend to consider a mix of vertical and horizontal differentiation. When buying a car, for example, a consumer may consider safety metrics and gas mileage, both of which are objective measures and examples of vertical integration. However, the consumer may also consider what colors the car is available in or the brand image. Each consumer will place a different weight of importance on each of the criteria.

Benefits of Product Differentiation

A differentiated product can increase brand loyalty and even survive a higher price point. If a product is perceived to be better in some way than its competitors, consumers will consider it worth the higher price.

Differentiation marketing can help companies stand out when a product isn't perceived to be much different from a competitor's, such as bottled water. The strategy might be to focus on a lower price point or that it's a locally owned business. When functional aspects of the two products are identical, nonfunctional features can be highlighted. The strategy can be an appealing change in design or styling.

A successful product differentiation campaign raises consumer interest and gives the consumer a reason to believe they need one product rather than another.

Examples of Product Differentiation

Companies introducing a new product often cite its cost advantages. If Company X produces a coffee maker virtually identical to that of Company Y, Company X may offer a version at a lower cost. If it comes with a reusable filter, the savings on paper filters are highlighted in packaging and advertising.

For example, product differentiation is vividly on display among the many coffee maker brands on today's market. KitchenAid coffee makers have a hefty, substantial feel and a premium price to match. Keurig differentiates itself with the ease of use of coffee pods. Amazon Basics, as always, sets an unbeatably low price point.

Product Differentiation FAQs

What is an example of product differentiation?

An example of product differentiation is when a company emphasizes a characteristic of a new product to market that sets it apart from others already on the market. For example, Tesla differentiates itself from other auto brands because their cars are innovative, high-end, and battery-operated. Also, their customer service is convenient and fast.

What are the elements of product differentiation?

Any aspect of a product can differentiate it in the mind of a consumer. Therefore, a producer or manufacturer should consider opportunities for differentiation in all of its production areas: marketing, product management, engineering, sales, customer support. For example, how can the product be marketed so that it stands out from its competitors? How can the product be engineered in a unique way? How can a brand provide superior customer support?

What are the 3 types of product differentiation?

The three types of product differentiation are vertical, horizontal, and mixed. A common example of vertical integration is when two products are similar but priced differently. However, if the price of both products was the same, one would be considered "the best" because of its perceived quality. For example, a Hanes T-shirt vs. a Gucci T-shirt.

Horizontal differentiation occurs regardless of a product’s quality or price point. The customer chooses a product or brand according to personal preference, for example, Coca-Cola or Pepsi.

Mixed differentiation is complex and involves factors of both vertical and horizontal differentiation. For example, a consumer may choose a new car from the same class of vehicle and consider the price points of the different brands (vertical differentiation) but also the colors of the interior (horizontal differentiation).

Why is product differentiation important?

Product differentiation is important because it allows different brands or companies to gain a competitive advantage in the market. If differentiation were unachievable, the bigger companies with economies of scale would always dominate the market because they can undercut smaller producers in terms of price. Product differentiation is also a way to control costs for the consumer by maintaining a competitive market.

What is Apple’s differentiation strategy?

Apple differentiates its products by pricing them higher than its competitors implying that the products are better quality and incorporate the latest technology. The company also stimulates consumer interest by introducing hype before product launches through clever marketing and distribution strategies.

The Bottom Line

Product differentiation is a way for products and brands to command market share based on consumer preferences. Customers choose products for various reasons whether it be price, brand image, quality or durability, taste, color, or a temporary trend. If a product can differentiate itself from its competitors in some unique way and appeal to consumers, it will have a competitive advantage and gain market share. Therefore, product differentiation is also a way for market forces to do their work and keep prices down for the consumer.