Growth Marketing

The “It’s Toasted” Principle for Startup Differentiation

If you want people to choose you, you need to tell them what’s better about you.

We learn this – often the hard way – when we first start interviewing for jobs. Or applying for college. Or asking someone to go out with us… or hang out with us… or be our Facebook friend.

People need to know what’s different or better about you before they choose you.

It’s true in our personal lives. And it’s true in business.

(The rare exception here is if you’re having a fire sale. But let’s hope it doesn’t come to that.)

But here’s the problem: What if you’re 100% exactly the same as everyone else in your industry? What if you’re serving exactly the same market… with a nearly identical product… for exactly the same price… in exactly the same location?

How do you differentiate your business – so your prospects know to choose you and customers know to recommend you – if there’s nothing different about you?

This is a MAJOR challenge for copy hackers worldwide. And it’s one I’m tackling today in this brand new short video (4:48):

How are YOU differentiating your business?

What will visitors to your site immediately understand to be YOUR value?

Let’s talk about it in the comments. And check back here soon – we’re launching our newest ebooks on differentiation and value propositions (USPs) on June 11, 2013. It’s been over a year since we last shared a book with y’all… and we’re stoked!

Get signed up to be the first to know about new ebooks (and get exclusive offers)…

UPDATE: This video vanished strangely for a while. (That’s one reason I host on Wistia now.) So sorry! It’s fixed now. 🙂

About the author

Joanna Wiebe

Joanna Wiebe - Copywriter and author of "Copy Hackers"

  • Matthew Plummer Cobb

    I disagree, somewhat, that it’s about being the first or loudest, since these days it’s hard to be the first, and a competitor with more resources (like a bigger marketing budget) can out-shout you. What I hear when I listen to your explanation, though, is that if you can’t BE different, you can certainly COMMUNICATE differently. Not necessarily more loudly, but more clearly, more thoroughly, with a unique voice, to a well-targeted audience, using language that will resonate with your potential and existing customers. And hey, isn’t that what advertising and marketing is really about?

  • Roy Moss

    The video won’t load. Is it removed or is it just me?

  • Mad Men? A North American TV show I presume 😉

  • OMG I just saw this for the first time on Twitter and thought of a new strap line for Working Software … “IT’S TESTED”.

    Although that only really seems super clever after having just watched that video. Maybe what I need to do is include a link to this article just below my logo 😉

    Anyway, thanks Joanna from like 2 years ago for this video, great food for thought.

  • Nour Akalay

    I know this is an old post but I think the most famous example of differentiating with a commonly shared attribute is Shell Super Oil with Platformate in the 1960. With a series of impressive ads, they convinced the public that they were the only ones using Platformate making their oil last longer. In reality they never actually said that and ALL their competitors were using Patformate. They still managed to be perceived as a premium product to this day.

    Here are the ads:

    And an extract from a book explaining a bit:

  • This brief video is impressive and builds confidence in budding entrepreneurs.

  • Jesse Reilly

    Great video – the XKCD comic in the comments really drives the point home! My only comment is on presentation – I’d find the delivery easier to follow with longer pauses between sentences.

  • The most important thing I got out of this post is that I should start watching Mad Men…
    And so I did.

  • Annette Walker

    Here’s a classic comic strip about too many products each claiming to do something more spectacular … & the confusion & overwhelmed & helpless feeling buyers can be left with.

  • John Mignano

    Hey Joanna, how are you…great discussion going on here, thanks for sharing you’re much appreciated.

    Fill void in the current marketplace. Being first can be a business disadvantage, referring to “pioneer gets arrow in their back”, better to know what’s already tested and working in your marketplace before investing your time and money.

    In terms of innovation, it is smart to be intimately aware of your market by always asking for their feedback so you can refine and tweak how you can serve their needs in better ways…

    One of the ways to differentiate is by growing your product line as your consumers grow, too, this is strategic diversification which goes back to filling void in the current marketplace by managing risks and not putting all your eggs in one basket.

    Market intelligence, by reverse engineering top competitors you get the benefit of their marketing budget, research and due diligence virtually handed to you on silver platter.

    Message to market match, you need to understand which media is being used to clearly and concisely communicate your core value(s) and do it better than anyone else.

    Differentiation is also how you maintain the integrity of every product or service you produce to keep your customer’s trust and continued loyalty.

    Thanks to everyone for contributing, nice job!

    • Joanna Wiebe

      Nice summary, John! Thanks for your awesome contribution to the discussion. 🙂

  • This reminds me of the book, Positioning by Al Ries, which transformed the way I viewed UVPs or USPs. You guys are right, there are many brands out there who are so similar.

    It behooves a marketer to quickly establish a differentiating feature they can own long-term, but in the short-term, it makes sense to just be bold with FACTS!

    • Joanna Wiebe

      Yes, there are so many ways to position your startup – and just *one* of them is stating the ‘facts’ about how you create your product. Thanks!

  • Aaron Hughes

    cool mad men reference, Jo. Definitely brings to mind Claude Hopkins and his famous beer story telling campaign. Being different sometimes means just telling the story that no one else hasn’t. Thanks.

    • Joanna Wiebe

      Yeah, Damien mentioned Claude Hopkins, too. Quel surpris – Claude Hopkins was a genius. 🙂 Time and again we’re reminded of that!

  • Jimmy Moncrief


    The best part was how you conveyed the message from the clients point of view!

    So often simply copy what other competitors are doing and don’t look at things as if you were the customer.

    Great material! Thanks!!!

    • Joanna Wiebe

      Thanks, Jimmy! I agree that checking out what our competitors are doing is often the first place we go when we’re thinking of our message and positioning. I recommend doing competitor content audits… but I think people sometimes think of that exercise as a message-finding exercise… when it’s not so much about positioning yourself against the competition or swiping their messages but rather KNOWING what your competitors are doing… and then doing what makes sense for your visitors.

  • Cliff Brown

    “Different” by Youngme Moon (of HBS) talks about how real innovators are different, but in ways we might not expect. She explains, for example, how IKEA became he #1 furniture retailer in the world by offering sweedish meatball lunches and free child care in their stores (two examples of how IKEA differs from traditional furniture stores).

    They don’t offer free delivery or financing (things once thought to be absolutely vital to be successful in that space).

    • Joanna Wiebe

      Adore it! Thanks, Cliff. And interesting note about what they won’t do; deciding not to do something or offer something can also help you stand out to visitors and prospects. I often think about how 37signals, which is very customer-focused, doesn’t build in many of the features their customers request – and that alone makes them stand out in my mind. What you don’t do can be as important to prospects as what you do.

  • Andres Ospino Sem

    Thank you Joanna! This is the greatest challenge I have with small to medium size businesses serving a small geographic area. It’s hard to get a plumber or a dentist to tell me what is “innovative” about their business. I am going to definitely use this.

    • Joanna Wiebe

      Ah, that brings me back to my early days in ‘local’ marketing… Do I long to return to those days? I do not. 🙂

  • Damien Elsing

    Joanna, this reminds me of the famous Claude Hopkins (author of Scientific Advertising) story where he was coming up with an ad for a beer company… He stumbled across one of the steps in the brewing process involving purification of the beer. When he asked the company why this wasn’t mentioned anywhere in their advertising they answered, “Everybody does it – it’s not unique.”

    But Hopkins pointed out that nobody else was TALKING about it. They focused on the “purity” of the beer in the next campaign and it was hugely successful. Great example of creating a USP from something that isn’t really unique but that nobody else is talking about.

    • Joanna Wiebe

      So true, right??!!! If others aren’t talking about it, you CAN. Diggity.

  • Great info as always peeps .. where shall I post the coloured markers 😉

  • John Beveridge

    Great video! I’m in the midst of a website re-write and this is very helpful…..because I’m really not all that different!

    • Joanna Wiebe

      The most interesting cases are the ones where you’re “not all that different”. Can be a very fun marketing challenge….

  • Joanna Wiebe

    But now you know. 🙂

  • Joanna Wiebe

    Being a game changer or major innovator is a great differentiating opportunity – and one we talk about at length in our upcoming Startup Guide to Differentiation. (There’s a whole chapter dedicated to it.) Would love to hear how that game-changer approach worked out for your client, Robert. Tweet me if you write a case study!

    BTW, in my experience, it takes a *shocking amount* of yelling to wake sleeping giants. 🙂

  • Aaron Orendorff


    Love the emphasis on differentiation and immediacy.

    On the first, the Story of Telling had a great post last week on the (not to be cheeky) difference between difference and different: “People don’t want to be sold on the reasons why you think your brand is better or best. They don’t want different. They want difference.”

    I might not agree with dropping a USP altogether (and I doubt Jiwa really does either), but the article stresses its point pretty creatively.

    As always, the video was crazy helpful! Thanks.

    • Lance Jones

      Interesting article, thanks for sharing it, Aaron! I agree with Bernadette’s main point.

      However, our recent testing experiment — that we’ve turned into an ebook titled “The Great Value Proposition Test” — provides evidence that delivering a USP-focused message in a home page headline can have a marked impact on visitor behavior.

      We took 11 startups, asked them to complete a questionnaire about what makes them unique (and why customers choose them), and then created a series of new headlines focused on their USP. We ran split tests on all 11 websites and ended up with 9 winners. Joanna will disclose the exact [surprising] amount of lift generated in next week’s newsletter.

      We rarely see websites with great top-level messaging about what makes them unique and desirable. We think it’s something every business with a web presence can improve. But it takes work. The path to developing a USP based on your key differentiator(s) takes real effort, but it can pay off handsomely. Testing your new copy is dead simple… it’s creating the copy where time must be spent.

      Anyway, that’s some of our thoughts on being “different”.

      Nailing the “difference”, in our opinion, is about delivering on the promise made in your USP.

      Thanks for commenting!

    • Joanna Wiebe

      Thanks for introducing us to the Story of Telling, Aaron. Will check more out. 🙂 Agree with Jiwa + you that people don’t want to be sold on what you think – they want what *they* want. That’s copywriting 101.

      But that doesn’t mean they don’t want to know what’s special about you. 🙂 You just have to message it in words that matter to them. And, critically, your differentiator has to matter to prospects – they should care about what’s different about you or no amount of Don Drapering will help. (In the Mad Men example, customers were concerned about cancer. It’s not that they wanted toasted tobacco; it’s that they didn’t want cancer. Thus, Don ultimately sold them what they wanted by not selling them the thing they didn’t want. [[head spins]])

      It’s hard to deny the persuasive power of helping people understand what’s different or better about you. We know humans make decisions by contrasting their options – and the busier you are, the better you respond to clear messages highlighting things like your differentiators. When we’re trying to increase conversion while making visitors happy, working with their decision-making behaviors goes a long way.

  • Jody

    (Not sure if my original post was sent – sorry if this is a duplicate.)

    Great post! We own a vacation beach house rental in so. California which is a competitive market. I use the following when replying to inquiries:

    The Top 3 Reasons for Staying at Tremont Villa

    • Our home is the perfect coastal get-away for spending time with family and friends – where creating memories is important! But you also have plenty of room to spread out and have “alone” time when needed.

    • You’re away from the routines of everyday life, yet are comforted by the many conveniences of home. You’ll appreciate the luxury beds, linens, towels; the fully supplied kitchen (including quality knives, fresh herbs from the garden, and cooking utensils); the comfortable furniture; pleasing décor; and wireless internet access.

    • You’ll work with an owner who cares about you and believes in being responsive to your needs! Our reviews are a testament to all this.

    My concern is whether this is too much information making it sound phony.


  • This reminds me of a scene from Mr. Show, which used differentiating language in a rather aggressive way:

    • Joanna Wiebe

      Mr. Show was so awesome! Like Arrested Development, it needs to come back for an encore season.

  • adimoga

    I like it!

  • danielgonzalez

    I had a client in this exact situation. They sell restaurant supplies. In the restaurant supply industry most of the messaging is around “Cheaper/Lowest Prices.” I did a competitive analysis (copyhackers style) and I found that literally every competitor I reviewed was messaging to low pricing in one way or another.

    I put myself in a restaurant manager shoes for a minute, and tried to figure out what would benefit them from a restaurant supply company.

    I decided to write a new headline that focused on a feature my client had which was “easy reordering.” The benefit I could highlight was convenience, and speed. This was something that most of their competitors had to offer as well, but none of them really had any messaging focused on it.

    In addition, we felt that the prices would speak for themselves. The had competitive prices, and a solid money back guarantee to reduce the risk to the buyer.

    I tested the headline: Get What You Need FAST – Every Time
    Subhead: Easy reordering & same day shipping, so you can get back to your busy day.

    I was able to get a major conversion rate increase for them. All because we quantified the messaging out in the marketplace, and carefully considered how to differentiate what they had.

    • Joanna Wiebe

      That’s such a great win, Daniel. Nice work. Glad to hear that the competitive audit/analysis helped bring you to a point of identifying what was different about your client – and especially love that you ran a copy test to see if you were right. 🙂 Client must be happy as heck!

      For those who haven’t audited their competitors, we’ve got a free worksheet here:

  • Joanna Wiebe

    BTW, here’s the link to the Mad Men “It’s Toasted” scene:

  • Nick Marshall

    We have been thrashing around for a while now trying to figure what makes us different. Our product (holiday homes for rent) are not different in aggregate although each individual property is. Eventually, I realised that our difference was our service, availability (7 days) and local knowledge. Even then we are not really different as there are several others doing similar things but none of them are talking about their service or local knowledge so this is a great opportunity to “toast” our business. We should have paid more attention to the feedback we were getting in testimonials because they tend to refer more to the assistance we give to help our customers find the home they need rather than the homes themselves. We are a lot closer to coming up with a pithy and succinct value proposition. Thank you.

    • Joanna Wiebe

      TOTALLY TRUE: “We should have paid more attention to the feedback we were getting in testimonials.” As we always say ’round these parts, your best messages don’t come from you – they come from your customers.

  • Laura Frisbie, M.Ed.

    Human interest & stories – tell why you do this, how you got into it, why it matters to you. What do you love about it? What is the meaning for you? How do you offer something personally special? What is your VISION MEANING and PURPOSE regarding what you offer? What do you CONTRIBUTE to the world?

    • Joanna Wiebe

      Interesting that you bring this up. One of the ways we work through differentiation in our upcoming The Startup Guide to Differentiation is “by people”. The people at your organization may be your strongest differentiation — if they do what they do passionately, skillfully and with purpose.

      We don’t all have to use “toast” our business (thanks for that, Nick!) because some of us have honest to goodness differences. And some of those differences are the people / talent / employees / founders that make us so amazing.

  • Jeremiah Stover

    An interesting thought here – even if you start talking about something that “everyone in your sector” is already doing, you may be surprised how many are not doing the basics – so that common factor may actually prove to be a differentiator (I know I see that in my industry).

    • Joanna Wiebe

      So true. And, even if they are doing what you’re doing, they’re so rarely 1) talking about it or 2) talking about it *right* (i.e., with the prospect/customer in mind) that there’s loads of room left to stand out.

  • amymiddleton

    This is my go-to tactic for differentiation among a sea of similar competitors. Works like a charm:

    • Joanna Wiebe

      hahahaha – nice. I’ve never seen that, but it’s *perfect*, Amy. 🙂 Asbestos-free…

  • Ryan Mathews

    Thanks! Definitely something to think about. Quick question: if you do have something else you can differentiate yourself with should you combine them together? Something that does make you stand out + something everyone else does also but doesn’t really advertise.

    Keep up the great articles!

    • Joanna Wiebe

      Hey, Ryan – great Q. We talk about this in our upcoming ebook. Most people will have more than one thing that makes them different. It’s often a matter of prioritizing your differences – based on what your prospects/customers love, generally – and then ensuring people are exposed to them in the right order (as hard as that may be).

      A good example is Zappos. Obviously, they’re very well-known for their customer-centric approach. But they’ve also got a larger selection that anyone they’re up against. Which comes first for them? They position their large selection as a key part of delivering customer happiness… so they lead with customer happiness but support that (and further differentiate) with ‘large selection’ messages.

      • Ryan Mathews

        Great example. That helps. Thanks!

  • Hi Joanna,
    Hearing that “saying it first or louder” or louder can provide differentiation will help as I think through an online course we’re about to offer. At Brownstone Fitness, we don’t have the “bells and whistles” that he big fancy gyms do so we hold ourselves out as a back-to-basics fitness studio for women. Not offering the next new thing in the fitness industry seems to be refreshing for a lot of the people who show up here.

    • Joanna Wiebe

      We talk a lot about differentiating by feature or component (e.g., “Our gym has 3x as many elliptical machines!”)… but one of the sneakier and stickier ways to differentiate when you don’t have loads of features / components is to SAY that and position it as a benefit for a specific audience, segment or niche.

      We’ve talked about Less Accounting before, and they’re a great example of this approach. They help their prospects, who don’t want to be accountants, see the value in scaling back their accounting software. They offer less, are proud of it… and, in doing so, offer waaaaaay more. Sounds like Brownstone Fitness is the same, Hans! You offer more by offering less. 🙂 If you were software, you’d be the streamlined, minimalist solution that users would fall in love with — not the bloated pain in the butt. 🙂

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