From the September 2008 issue of Startups

Marketing success hinges on having a core message that resonates with your target audience. When you create an ad or call prospects, are you communicating what they most want to hear? Many new entrepreneurs focus on the story they want to tell at the expense of crafting a more motivating central message. As a new business owner, you have the advantage of getting it right from the start by creating a core message with a clear point of differentiation that motivates prospects. It must also capture the essence of what you want customers to remember.

Everywhere you look, you'll see "me too" marketing. Pick any business category or market niche, and you'll find a majority of businesses are saying the same things about themselves. That leaves customers to make choices based on very slight differences, often to the detriment of marketers.

For example, a customer who's shopping for a brand-name camera may look at numerous websites and reviews. When most of the websites and stores that sell the same camera compete solely on price, the seller with the lowest price wins. But suppose one of the businesses offering the camera promotes its superior post-sale customer service or donates a portion of sales to charity. The customer may be willing to spend a few more dollars--solely because of what sets this seller apart.

When competitors are selling similar products or services, a marketer's point of differentiation may be the single motivating element that prompts a sale. Do you know what distinguishes your product or service from what's offered by your competitors? Is that distinguishing characteristic something your top prospects will find desirable?

The first step to developing your unique point of differentiation is to conduct a competitive analysis by gathering your competitors' marketing materials. Clip their print ads from magazines, newspapers and directories. Print out copies of their web pages. Contact your competitors and request their company brochures, sell sheets and collateral materials. If they're retailers, order a range of products or shop in their stores--go mystery shopping.

Look for key marketing messages, slogans and special offers to see exactly how your competitors differentiate themselves from each other. Then figure out how you can position your business against them based on a unique benefit only you provide. This benefit can relate to the product or service itself or the way it's offered, such as when a marketer bundles a group of services for a value-added plan or when a company offers next-day delivery.

Don't go full speed ahead until you're sure your prospects will find this difference highly desirable--even motivational. Make sure it's something your customers are willing to pay for by testing your assumptions through informal research, such as roundtable discussions with members of your target audience, or in battle with a small, test-marketing campaign.

Once testing proves positive, build your point of differentiation into your new company's advertising and PR campaigns, collateral materials, and sales tools. Weave this important point into your sales message as well for a unified campaign that positions your company for success.