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Identifying What Makes You Different: The 2nd Step to Mastering the Lost Art of Differentiation

Rivets made by Levi's

(PART 2 OF 6.5)

Author’s note: IndustRetail blog is exploring the Six-and-a-half Steps to Mastering the Lost Art of Differentiation. The first article examined the first step—identifying your key targets. This is the second article in the series.


Most don’t realize that Levi’s® weren’t the first blue jeans. In fact, blue denim trousers were very common when the first pair of Levi’s was sold in 1873. But Levi’s were dramatically different than any other denim pants because they were reinforced by…you guessed it…rivets.

(Sadly, Rivet|MRO can take no credit here.)

According to the Levi Strauss & Co. website, Latvian immigrant Jacob Davis pioneered rivets while working as a tailor in Reno, Nevada in 1871. Davis had originally used rivets on horse blankets, and he found they worked well for re-enforcing the stress point in men’s work pants..

Since Davis did not have the money required to patent the technique of using rivets, he reached out to Levi Strauss to see if he was interested in applying with him. In 1873, the pair received a patent for “improvement in fastening pocket-openings.”

These rugged new pants immediately became popular as work pants and have been a staple of a casual fashion since the 1950s. Last year, Levi Strauss & Co. generated more than $4.5 billion in revenue…all because of rivet, I mean, rivets.

Strauss knew he had something different and valuable—and he had the luxury of a clamoring public telling him that every day with both their mouths and their wallets.


If you had 60 seconds to tell a large customer why your brand is better than your biggest competitor, what would you say? And, just as important, why would you have confidence in saying it?

Let’s face it…most industrial distributors would give similar answers. “We have great service.” “We fulfill 95% of all orders within 24 hours.” Same goes for many manufacturers. (You distributors out there are painfully aware of this, aren’t you?)

In order to truly differentiate your brand, you must be intentional. Invest time in talking with your customers—your very best customers. Ask them why they buy from you. You may have a good idea why, but assume nothing—the insights are invaluable.

And the downside of poor assumptions can be catastrophic. (See: Titanic, “Not even God himself could sink this ship.”)

I remember asking a client years ago why his customers bought from him. He was certain it was because of his staff’s expertise. To his credit, he commissioned a customer research study. His customers told him something decidedly different. They bought—overwhelmingly—because he carried everything they needed. And when they needed a part, the needed it now.

Interestingly, his marketing had focused on his staff’s expertise—and he felt like his marketing wasn’t working. When he switched his message to one that promoted his incredible inventory, his sales increased by more than 8% in just a few months.

They said the Titanic would never sink. It did just that on its maiden voyage. 1,503 people died because they assumed they didn’t need the life boats.


  • Do one-on-one interviews (qualitative research) with your best customers. Ask them broad, open-ended questions like, “We do you do business with us?” and “How are we different and better than our competition?” Don’t bias them with questions like, “Do you buy from us because we have better service.” Then ask tons of follow-up questions like “Why?” and “Tell me more about that.” The more they talk, the more you learn. Avoid the temptation to sell—this is research. And take copious notes.
  • After you’ve completed a dozen or so interviews, look for trends. I find it helpful to write key points from all your interviews on sticky notes and place them on a wall. Cluster notes with similar themes together. Those clusters hold your answers.
  • Draft a preliminary document defining and prioritizing your key point(s) of differentiation.
  • Validate these theories with quantitative research. Use an online survey tool like Survey Monkey and send a brief, thoughtful survey to your customers. Start again with open-ended questions, but narrow the nature of your questions and get specific. Consider asking them to rank order a set of differentiating characteristics relating to your brand. You’ll want to make sure you’re able to write questions in such a way to eliminate bias as much as possible. Consider getting a professional to assist in this process. Here’s a bonus: often times, your customers will perceive this survey as a customer satisfaction survey—and give you credit for caring. (By the way…you should do customer satisfaction surveys…these are not replacements!)
  • Determine if the quantitative survey reinforces the conclusions drawn in the qualitative phase of your research. If they do, you have your answer. If they don’t, you missed something.

One last note: marketing research is a complicated craft that is difficult to perform by novices. Don’t assume (there I go again…) you can pull it off. It may seem easy, but it is often best left to experts. Either way, it’s a critical step you must take before you can effectively differentiate your business.

For manufacturers, I recommend calling Bart Schwartz at Industrial Channel Research. They have a fantastic syndicated survey that provides you with some exceptional insights. (For distributors, I have another recommendation that’s equally riveting.)

Until the next time, here’s wishing you much success finding your rivet. It will help you secure your place!





Tim Rasmussen
Principal, Rivet|MRO

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