News & Thinking

HEARTtruths — How to create experiences that competitors can’t copy

  • News
News 18 Apr

This is part of our ‘HEART Truths’ blog series designed for senior growth and insights leaders at subscription and digital services brands. HEART by MTM is a proprietary growth framework for healthy acquisition and retention across entertainment, Telco, FoodTech, TravelTech and FinTech sectors.

Is it important for brands to differentiate? It depends on which marketing guru you ask. A debate has been raging for some time about whether meaningful differentiation is possible, and whether it is better to pursue a strategy of distinctiveness (through brand assets e.g. logos, taglines, package design, jingles, mascots etc.

Mark Ritson makes the point (in his Mini MBA Seminar titled Defending Differentiation) that differentiation shouldn’t be in competition with distinctiveness, and that this is a false dichotomy. He believes we can have both, and we agree. But the challenge is that it’s difficult to create a product that is truly unique and, as Ritson says, real product differences are often negligible. It is even harder to be ‘unique’ in the digital services space because the entire customer relationship plays out online, with the offer, service, products, and costs all available for anyone to see and compare. And even if you do manage to do it, these differences are usually easy to replicate.

So how can such brands make themselves more difficult to copy? We believe that nailing the ‘job to be done’ for your customers is a useful way to achieve meaningful differentiation. If you can understand the job better than your competitors and steadfastly help people achieve their goals in that category (or reduce constraints), you can create innovative experiences that make brands hard to copy.  So, yes, it is possible to achieve both differentiation and distinctiveness.

Michele Galli, Senior Product Manager at Wise says “At the beginning, customers do not trust you, especially as a financial tool. They do not trust a new financial tool on your financial app. And so how do you convince them to use your product? You need to provide a 10X better user experience and they need to have something that is so good compared to what they are using that they cannot ignore it and so they start using it.”

It’s hard to copy brands that understand the ‘job to be done’.

The theory suggests that people don’t buy products or services, but rather they ‘hire’ them to accomplish specific ‘jobs’ in their lives and make progress in specific circumstances. Those jobs are never simply about function. They also have powerful emotional and social dimensions. By understanding the underlying needs and motivations behind these jobs, and what constrains people from making progress, digital service brands can innovate and create solutions that better meet customer demands, driving successful product development and marketing strategies.

When brands are successful at understanding the jobs to be done, they can differentiate by creating experiences that become hard to copy. An offering is not just about the physical product or service, it encompasses the entire brand, customer and user experience. This holistic perception makes it challenging for competitors to replicate the physical and emotional connection and establish the same level of trust and loyalty among customers.

Airbnb is an apt example of a brand that has built great experiences that are hard to copy. At a brand level, it has built a scale, diversity and reputation that is difficult to match. At a customer experience level, it has made the end-to-end experience from planning a trip to handing keys back after your vacation virtually frictionless. And at a user experience level, it has made finding the perfect location an enjoyable and reassuring experience through vibrant photography and user reviews and ratings.

Getting to grips with the job to be done

There are four key elements of the ‘job to be done’ theory that can help brands create experiences that are hard to copy.

  1. The struggle

What are your customers and prospects struggling with? This may not be at all what you expect. Christensen’s classic HBR article gives a great example of property developers whose new apartments for downsizers were failing to sell. They tried various fixes, such as adding bay windows, but had no success until they talked to the people who had bought. This led them to understand that people leaving family homes behind were struggling with the idea that there was no room for their dining table. Once they realised that the table was not just a bulky, outdated piece of furniture, but that it also carried family memories and emotions, they were able to redesign the apartments to make space for a table, as well as offering a moving and storage service. As a result, apartment sales rocketed, as did profits.

The same is true for a brand such as Monzo. The brand has carved out a loyal user base through understanding that traditional banks don’t help customers manage their money and have developed useful features and experiences to address that struggle. Monzo executes against category needs very well, which requires a profound understanding of the customers’ needs, goals, struggles, and ultimately the job to be done.

  1. The job

In the property developer example, the job to be done was not (as the developers thought) to provide a smaller living space for retirees or divorced singles. It was the wider experience of helping people transition from one phase of life to the next. Christensen says, “The insight into the job the customers needed done allowed the company to differentiate its offering in ways competitors weren’t likely to copy — or even comprehend. The new perspective changed everything.”

MTM’s HEART Framework reveals similar stories of digital service provider brands who are winning at understanding the job to be done as a broader experience, making their offering hard to copy. For example, Community Fibre, a London-based broadband supplier has understood the need for speed, especially for gamers and people working from home. The brand has its own fibre network, which enables it to differentiate by offering faster speeds for both upload and download, instead of slower uploads as is the norm.

  1. The goals

What are customers hoping to achieve through buying in to a product or service? In the case of the property example we’ve been following here, prospective apartment buyers were looking for simpler lives without the hassles of home ownership. But to get that, they thought, they had to endure the stress of selling their current homes, wading through exhausting choices about what to keep and what to sell. Or they could stay where they were, even though that solution would become increasingly imperfect as they aged. It was only when given a third option that addressed all the relevant criteria that shoppers became buyers.

Healthy acquisition and retention means helping people achieve their goals. This requires brands to have a really clear proposition that is based around the job to be done. Some of the brands that perform best in the MTM HEART framework are hard to copy because of their relentless focus on a specific task. As we talked about earlier, Airbnb is a great example of a brand that truly understands customers’ goals and values. The brand has understood that its customers desire to step outside the sanitised — and expensive — world of chain hotels and has consistently positioned itself as a travel experience company that enables a more authentic connection with a place and its people.

  1. The constraints

The final element in creating hard-to-copy experiences is to understand the constraints that customers face in hiring the service for a job to be done. Constraints may be time, money, resistance to change and inertia or even confidence, knowledge and skills. Following our original example through, creating space in the apartment for a dining room table reduced a very real anxiety that prospective buyers had. They could now take the table with them. And having two years’ worth of storage and a sorting room on the premises gave condo buyers permission to work slowly through the emotions involved in deciding what to keep and what to discard. Reducing their stress made a catalytic difference.

It’s no surprise, then, that the most successful brands in the HEART framework help customers overcome constraints. For example, Hello Fresh helps people to get a home cooked meal onto the table regardless of whether they know how to cook. Xbox Game Pass recognises the cost of new games and the risk involved in buying before trying.  And Monzo bank knows that people find banking confusing and impersonal, so have made the service transparent and easy to use. In every case, the proposition is hard to copy, because it’s based on a deep understanding of customers’ struggles, goals and constraints.

Understanding the jobs to be done compliments distinctiveness

As we’ve discussed, a key challenge for brands in the digital services space is how to stand out from competitors. We’ve emphasised that distinctiveness and differentiation are separate things but they can co-exist, and in fact, both strategies should be pursued. MTMs HEART framework shows that clarity of proposition is essential. Taking a ‘jobs to be done’ approach that focuses on the struggle, jobs, goals and constraints faced by customers can help brands be meaningfully different, harder to copy, and build long and meaningful relationships with customers.

By Jonathan Stone, Director & Head of Tech/Telco, MTM

The HEART framework

The framework is based on structural equation modelling and regression analysis of 5,000 quantitative interviews covering 50 brands in eight categories: gaming, travel, finance, music, food, sport, video on demand and telecoms.

To find out more about HEART or to take the temperature of your brand’s subscription or membership model, and diagnose a course of action, sign up here to receive HEART Truths right to your inbox or to have a chat about HEART.