EP - 058

Stand out and Dominate Your Market

With Guest Mark Levy

Find unique and impactful ways to stand out by balancing rational and emotional decision-making.

The How To Sell More Podcast


March 6, 2024

If you’re struggling to find a way to make your product or service stand out, you may need to start doing things differently.

In this episode of “How to Sell More,” host Mark Drager is joined by the legendary Mark Levy. A mastermind in differentiation and branding, He’s worked with leaders, strategists and teams in organizations from Amazon and Google to American Express and Proctor & Gamble. They explore his revolutionary five-step process for standing out, including how to mix the rational and emotional into a powerhouse of branding and sales strategies. 

-Understand the Spectrum: Businesses often struggle with determining the right balance between rational, data-driven decision-making and emotional, human-centred approaches. 

-Tailor Your Approach: Depending on the type of product, service, or audience, your emphasis might shift more toward logical arguments or towards creating emotional connections.

-Distinctiveness in Market: Differentiation is crucial for businesses to stand out in their market. This involves identifying and highlighting unique aspects of a product or service that set it apart from competitors.

“To be a leader, you have to do something different than other people are doing.” -- Mark Levy

Links to This Episode

Key Takeaways

  • Differentiation is crucial - To remain competitive, businesses need to identify and highlight unique aspects of their product or service to ensure it stands out from competitors.
  • Relevance to Customer Needs - Effective differentiation is not just about being different; it's about being relevant and valuable to the target audience. Once you understand what resonates with customers, the business's unique selling proposition can be adjusted accordingly.
  • Constant Evolution - Differentiation is a dynamic process. What works today may not work tomorrow, so businesses need to continually evaluate and adapt their differentiation.

Top 3 Reasons to Listen

  • Learn to Differentiate: Understand the delicate balance between logic and emotion in decision-making.
  • Discover Why It Matters: Learn why standing out is crucial in today's market and why it’s all about the execution.
  • Embrace Your Difference: Discover how to identify unique selling points that resonate with customers so you can evolve your strategy to stand out.

Follow Mark Levy on Social

Website: https://www.levyinnovation.com/

Check out his books - Accidental Genius and How To Persuade People Who Don’t Want To Be Persuaded 

LinkedIn:  https://www.linkedin.com/in/levyinnovation/

More About Today's Guest, Mark Levy

Differentiation expert and former advisor to Simon Sinek | “The Big Sexy Idea” Guy | Strategic Consultant and Advisor

Mark Levy stands out as a master in the art of differentiation, crafting unique identities for a wide range of entities including corporations, brands, leaders in thought and politics, various entertainment formats, and diverse products and services. His innovative contributions have reached and influenced hundreds of millions globally.

Since founding his consultancy in 2001, Mark has been instrumental in the success of numerous high-profile projects, including his pivotal role in uncovering Simon Sinek's "why," earning high praise from Sinek himself: "Mark Levy is the man who helped me find my why. He inspires me."

His expertise has benefited leaders and teams across prestigious organizations such as Adobe, Amazon, and Google, to name a few, and he has extended his influence to advising government entities, including the White House and the United Nations.

Notably, Mark played a consulting role for Joel Hodgson of "Mystery Science Theater 3000," a series celebrated by Time and Rolling Stone as one of the greatest TV shows ever.

In recognition of his exceptional positioning and messaging strategies, Mark was honored with an induction into The Million Dollar Consulting® Mentor Hall of Fame in 2018.

Beyond consulting, Mark Levy is a prolific author, keynote speaker, and podcaster. His book, "Accidental Genius: Using Writing to Generate Your Best Ideas, Insight, and Content," stands as a testament to his thought leadership, having achieved international success and bestseller status across various formats.

As a speaker, Mark has captivated audiences worldwide, earning accolades for his engaging and insightful presentations. His contributions to the speaking circuit have not gone unnoticed, with Vistage International naming him among the Top Ten New Speakers.

Since March 2021, he has co-hosted "Planet of the Associations," a vlog and podcast aimed at guiding C-suite leaders through the intricacies of future-proofing their associations.

Mark's talents extend into the realm of magic, co-creating shows that have received widespread acclaim and enjoyment, such as "Chamber Magic," celebrated as New York City’s top live show, surpassing even "Hamilton" in TripAdvisor rankings.

Before embarking on his consultancy journey, Mark enriched minds as a teacher at Rutgers University, specializing in research writing and strategy. This diverse background underscores Mark's multifaceted expertise and his ability to enchant, educate, and inspire across various platforms and disciplines.

A Transcription of The Talk

Mark Drager: So Mark, I'm really excited to dig into this topic with you because you are a differentiation expert. You started your charter company in 2001. So you're going on, what, 23 years now? And then you've worked even before that. I'm going to peg you and say you have quite a bit of experience helping people with positioning and differentiation. You have a five-step process. I want to jump straight to the fifth step because you mentioned in your breakdown to stop being so rational. As someone whose agency helps people with positioning, differentiation, and creative services, I find myself daily questioning the spectrum from rational decision-making to emotional decision-making. Depending on the type of sale, product, or service, whether it's B2B or B2C, the level of the person you're dealing with, or whether they're more shoot-from-the-hip entrepreneurial or more corporate, I'm constantly asking, how do you balance on the spectrum from the most rational, data-driven decisions to the most emotional decisions where people just want to work with people and impress the pants off of them? How do you figure this out? Before you even start working on differentiation and making things awesome, how do you determine how important the rational data is versus the emotional aspect? Let's just move ahead because these guys are the best, and we want to work with IBM.

Mark Levy: Right, great question, one of my favorite subjects. By the way, some of the ideas I'm going to talk about are influenced by a book by Rory Sutherland from the UK. His book, I think, is called "Alchemy." So, I've been doing this forever, you know, you say 23 years. My background is important here. I pitched over 25,000 times live for money and have made over a billion dollars for so...

Mark Drager: Network marketing or MLM? What do you mean?

Mark Levy: No, I sold books. It was a very ethical thing. I was the director of sales at the third-largest book wholesaler in North America. We'd buy millions of dollars worth of books from Random House, Simon and Schuster, Doubleday, and so forth. Then we'd sell them to independent bookstores and chain stores. I would have to quickly look at a book and size up what made that book important, or if it was important, and what had changed in society since the company had decided to publish it or not. There were all kinds of variables. So...

Mark Drager: In this situation, which I love, you're dealing with different people, and a bookstore is 100% about the shelf space, right? They certainly want to put products on the shelf that will sell and turn over. I love that you're in there, having to, in a sentence or two, try to capture attention.

Mark Levy: If you're interested, people will hang out for as long as you need. Really, occasionally it's a set of first sentences, but sometimes much longer. Anyway, there was all this product that I had to size up very quickly, and then pitch it immediately. There was no time to think about it. I bring that kind of aesthetic to my work. Essentially, what I like to tell people is, I look at their business, and I've worked with the biggest names. I've worked with someone from the White House. So, I don't want to make it seem marginalized what I'm doing, but I essentially look at people's lives, or their business, or their product or their services. If it was a book, I very quickly say, what's the main idea of this "book" that you have written with your life or your business? What are the satellite ideas? The supplementary ideas? The stories? The lessons from it? And if we moved one of those ideas to the front, or put two ideas together that hadn't gone together earlier, would it be a better-selling book, quote-unquote? And how would we pitch it? There's a degree of irrationality, or rather, a rationality that isn't fully articulated yet.

Mark Drager: But this must be driven by not necessarily a fear, but a lack of confidence feeling. You need to convince someone that your product, your service, or your message has a place. So we fall into the rational only because we somehow believe that just going out there, making the boldest claims, saying what only you can say in the way that only you can say it, and saying something worth listening to is too fluffy, or not enough to sell. It's just not enough to hang your hat on.

Mark Levy: When you stick to what we think of as rational and irrational, they're just labels. I'm calling what I do irrational, but really, there's a rationality that just hasn't been articulated yet. The rational only stays one or two percentage points to the right or left of what already exists. So when you stay too rational, you're using very similar claims and ideas and tactics that everyone has used before you because that's what rationality is. It's a very specific box, a bubble that's been decided upon. But anyone you know who's done something extraordinary operates by irrational means or by a different rationality. Talking about Rory again, he mentioned that major entrepreneurs in this world, whom we idolize, operate by a logic that would never be okayed by a committee. They're seen as certifiably bonkers, like Steve Jobs, Elon Musk, Peter Thiel, and James Dyson. No one was asking for an expensive, complex, pretty vacuum like Dyson's. So, this idea, um, David Cronenberg, the Canadian director, said something like the entertainer gives you those old songs you know and love so well, the artist gives you what you couldn't know you wanted this time, but you know you'll want next time. When working with organizations that genuinely want to break new ground, I work with a lot of companies, for lack of a better phrase, saving the world. To be a leader, you have to do something different than other people are doing. Our greatest desire and fear is to stand out. To stand out, you need to do something genuinely different from others and different for a real reason.

Mark Drager: Well, like different for a real reason. Ideally, something that is highly valued understood, or impressive to your target audience, right? It can't just be different for the sake of being different.

Mark Levy: That's right. That's right. Um, yeah, if theirs is blue, and yours is green, that's not really a meaningful difference. I'll give you an example of something that might sound trivial, but it's not. Many years ago, there was a restaurant in New York City, open for decades, like 70 years. It closed during COVID-19 but was super successful before then. They were the first in New York City to serve a deli sandwich a foot high. Imagine, you order your pastrami, and it's a foot high. In a deli like that, a social gathering place, you're usually there with a friend, there are other people around. When they bring you this sandwich, it becomes an experience. Everyone's looking, talking, you're having conversations because food is very social. Today, you'd put a sandwich like that on Instagram, taking pictures and whatnot. The funny thing is we're used to getting sandwiches that are a foot high; they're just usually lying on their side. They're from places like Jersey Mike's, Subway, and Hero Shops. But standing the sandwich up makes it this bizarre, attention-grabbing thing. So, depending on your product or service, the way to differentiate might not be something sophisticated. It could be as simple as standing your sandwich up instead of laying it down.

Mark Drager: When you mentioned the sandwich, I was kind of like, it's like the $1,500 hamburger, the gold leaf thing. It's like we serve our Philly cheesesteak with a spoon because there's so much of it. I don't know if I've spent too much time in advertising and marketing because there's a certain cynicism and alike, 'Oh, that's not cool,' versus direct response or sales, where people go like, 'Hey, this works; this gets people's attention.' When considering this or working with people, how precious are you about it? Or is it just like, let's throw stuff out there, try things, not worry about being too cool or too kitschy?

Mark Levy: Great question. When I first start working with a client, I ask them about their sacred cows – what has to stay, what they won't give up. I tell them I'm cool with that. If these are necessary elements, we won't violate them. But other than that, I'm going to challenge them because to stand out, sometimes you have to do something unorthodox.

Mark Drager: I also like to ask about skeletons in the closet, so I don't accidentally highlight something they want to bury.

Mark Levy: Oh, that's really interesting. I love that. So, they're going to have to get a little uncomfortable. But also, it's about balancing what they can actually do. In other words, a 'C' idea can be elevated to 'A' status with the right execution, whereas an 'A' idea will be dragged down to 'C' status with poor execution. It's not only about the idea but also their ability, urgency, and vision to actualize it. They need to make the idea great. Rarely will we come up with a point of differentiation that works on autopilot. They're going to have to support it, talk about it, get people excited about it, and show how it can help in their lives. If they're not committed, it's not going to work.

Mark Drager: So, you find the point of differentiation, test it, make sure it works. But then you have to shout it from the rooftops, educate on it, speak on it, make it the focus. It's not enough just to come up with the point, throw it on a box, your website, an ad, or a landing page, and...

Mark Levy: Well, I love what you're saying. The point I want to make is about testing. Yes, we test it. But often, your point of differentiation might be philosophical. It might not be a 12-inch-high sandwich. It could be an idea, like 'Start With Why,' depending on your work. And sometimes, as Cronenberg said, an artist gives you what you didn't know you wanted. So often, you need to lead the way with this idea. If you were to test it, people might not understand what it was. You have to commit to it, educate people on it, and get them excited. There are ways to make things happen more rapidly, like preaching to the choir. Greg Stielstra, a marketer for Rick Warren's 'Purpose Driven Life,' said he hates mushrooms, but some people love mushrooms for the exact reasons he hates them. If you sell mushrooms, don't dumb down the mushroominess to appeal to non-fans. Lead with what the fans love. Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead compared it to licorice. Most hate it, but those who love it, really love it. When leading the field, you're not as alone as you think. The long tail of today's world means there are groups out there who will share your philosophy. You sometimes need to build from early adopters.

Mark Drager: I am struck with two thoughts. First, when I started my agency, company, after graduating from film school, I began working and started my company in 2006. It took me about four or five years to realize that there's a trap we fall into. I spent most of my time trying to prove to people that I'm just as good as the established players. Then, I gained enough confidence to realize that it's not about being just as good as the established players, but about being better, different, or unique in some way. It took me three years to reposition, restrategize, and do everything else. It took me eight years to properly learn this lesson. When I would go speak to entrepreneur groups, startups, or students, I'd say, "Listen, you're going to waste a lot of time and energy trying to be just as good as everyone else. But if you're just as good, there's no reason to pick you. You need to be different, better." So, leapfrog that uncomfortable feeling of trying to prove you're just as capable as the established players, especially if you're in your fifth, eighth, or tenth position. Don't spend your time comparing yourself to number one. Just leapfrog all of that and go out into the world right away from day one saying, 'This is why we're different, unique, better.' Don't even spend your time comparing yourself to anyone else because you won't win that game. Inevitably, people come back with, 'Great, how do I do that?' And I'd be like, 'Well, that's your job to figure out.' Do you believe that there are ways most of us can do this leapfrog? Or do we have to learn the lessons the hard way, put in the time, and realize, 'Oh, this doesn't work,' before we respect what does work?

Mark Levy: You really know what you're doing, these are wonderful questions. One thing I want to say, based on what you're saying – I love everything you're saying – is that we shouldn't get lost in focusing a lot on us as business owners. If the marketplace knows that you understand them in a way that others don't, they will listen to whatever method you bring in to help them achieve the results they want. Nothing you said is wrong, but it's also about looking psychographically at your audience. I received a wonderful letter the other day. My wife and I are reaching retirement age, and...

Mark Drager: I love that point of life. Let's make this clear.

Mark Levy: I'm not retiring. I'm going another 20 years, man. But the letter was great. It was simple, addressed to my wife, and started like this: 'I'm probably the only engineer in the world who works full-time at helping people understand how to work the Medicaid system.' He explained that his parents needed to figure out their Medicare programs, and it was so confusing that he had to learn it and help them. The letter was clear, with boxes, very systematic, like an engineer. He compared navigating the healthcare system to putting on layers of clothing for winter. You need multiple layers, and you need to put them on in the right order. He then explained the order, tier one, tier two. I'm not saying we're going to use him, but it was beautifully done. Engineers think clearly, and systematically. The healthcare system is complex, so...

Mark Drager: A rational approach, though, is what you're describing. I love it. It makes sense to me...

Mark Levy: From our view, you could also argue that hiring an engineer to help with the healthcare system is irrational. He's leading with the irrational saying, 'I am not born into this, I'm not educated in this, I'm an engineer. But we engineers systematize things.' He thought clearly for his parents and now, he's helped 414 people create their programs in the past five years. It was just so beautifully done. I would argue that it came from a framework of irrationality because you wouldn't normally say, 'Oh, I need to understand the healthcare system, here's an engineer.' Does that make sense?

Mark Drager: Oh, 100%, 100%.

Mark Levy: So that's unfortunate that it makes sense. It shouldn't make sense because it's irrational.

Mark Drager: Our strengths are our greatest weaknesses. My strength is, that I'm usually pretty quick at synthesizing something because I actually know, I actually wanted to be an engineer, a civil engineer, and an architect. And then I got scared in high school, and I went to film instead. But I, I'm not an artist, I am not an artist by any means. So I'm constantly trying to look to connect the dots and, and try and make sense of things. But, and this is maybe a great way to wrap up a conversation. I've been speaking with Mark Levy, and this has been amazing. My final thought is, can a rational process allow us to arrive at emotional and E rational statements and claims? Yes, and okay, how?

Mark Levy: Well, so, um, so one, one exercise that I do with my clients, because it's hard to tell, if people knew the right idea to differentiate around ahead of time, they wouldn't call you or me. Thank goodness, they can't figure this out. Right? So I work from the premise that you don't know what it is. So to ask you to go to some super interesting place right away is fraught with peril. It'll freeze people, it'll get them like really even very accomplished C-level people that I work with for major places in which like, frees them up big time. So what it is I often do from the very beginning, is I have them just list fact, after fact, after fact, after fact, about their business, like and they'll say, oh, about what, I don't know where you're located. What's the street address? How many people work there? In other words, it couldn't be another way I do that I ask the question, tell me about your business, everything that's obvious about it. And they'll say What do you mean by obvious Simon, I own stuff that you would be embarrassed to tell someone because it's so simple.

Mark Drager: Yeah. So it's the things those are the things they take for granted. I love that question.

Mark Levy: They start when they start listing what's obvious when they start listing what's factual, I cannot tell you The number of times where they're we're letting the faucet run, they're going through the facts in the obvious. And they go, Wait a minute. I never thought about this. It happens like 70% of the time, and it's because we screw ourselves up trying to be so smart and trying to find the right answer, that we shut down our ability to think in interesting ways. But just by being obvious and factual, like you've lowered the standards like the threshold is so low, there's no threshold there. And now you just start listing stuff. And it makes you think about your business or your marketplace. Like I would say to them things. Tell me obvious things about your marketplace about your customers. just obvious. Yeah. Oh, or factual. Go ahead. You know, what, Baba Baba Baba? Oh, that's interesting. They hadn't thought, Oh, what if we amplify that? But does that make sense you don't go for the amplification? Time. Now that's fantastic. Go for laying stuff out on a blanket.

Mark Drager: I was working maybe six or seven years ago with one of our long-term clients. And we're their agency of record, we were taking them through a repositioning from a manufacturing firm to more of an environment design firm trying to try to move them up earlier into the decision-making process. So they weren't always getting RFPs competing on commoditized goods. But instead, were earlier in the decision-making process with clients. So when we were going through this, we referenced Simon Sinek, and I know that you've, you've worked with him in the past, we were working with him to discover their why and we found out, you know, this entrepreneur said we will do whatever it takes it really whatever it takes whatever it takes, whatever it takes, whatever it takes to do the right thing for the project, even taking on all the risks of the project on behalf of the client. And I only found this out when we started talking about like, hey, projects that went sideways projects that went wrong. This client owes you 200 grand, what do you mean, they didn't pay like you financed? You financed the project for them. He said we would do whatever it takes, because he's such a handshake, old school value-based principle person, right? And as we started talking about this design side of things, I said, you know, we started getting into design and revisions.

And you'll I said you'll do unlimited revisions. He said, Well, we'll do whatever it takes we'll do we'll do unlimited revisions on something. I said, Well, why don't we talk about this? Oh, we couldn't talk about that. Well, why don't you talk about the fact that you finance projects on behalf of the client? Well, we couldn't talk about that, because people will take advantage of us like, like the snakes out there will hunt us down, and then take advantage of them. And I said, Well, just just like prequalify people, and don't work with them. And then if people are taking advantage of you don't work with them again, or move up your pricing next time, like the value of being able to say that you do these things out of value and out of principle and that this that move all the way through the organization to the point where every single project you will do whatever it takes, and I really wanted to make sure this was true, but that they will do whatever it takes to do the right thing for the project, including taking on all risk, and doing whatever it takes. I said you will get so much more gains from the people who are honorable. And this will go so much further over the next few years. And yes, you'll have to weed out a few bad characters along the way. But the cost, the expense of that will in no way match the benefit of you actually talking about these things. And that only came from what you're describing, which is this idea of like, like, let's just talk about stuff, the way you work, what you do, how you work and, and my clients never my client never thought to articulate this to anyone because he saw it as like a weakness. And I was like, well, that's the greatest thing ever.

Mark Levy: I love that. And by the way, a very quick addition to that. So you know Marshall Goldsmith the wonder, Oh, yeah, Marshall wonderful McMahon. So Marshall once said to me, because I don't know that he's still but he's his whole career, as far as I know. He is considered the greatest management consultant in the world, and so what he would do is you would pay for his travel for the year, but he would tell you what the fee was up front, and you would agree to the fee like 250,000 that whatever. And then you would pay for his travel but he wouldn't charge you anything until the end of the year. And at the end of the year, and they did measures and things in other words, there were things that were that was done around, but at the end of the year, he would send you the invoice saying as we said this project was we agreed on this price. You can pay us this price, or whatever you think the project was worth In other words, so he didn't get any money. This sounds unbelievably ethical and he didn't take any money. And at the end, he said, Yeah, here's what we said it was, but pay me what you can. And I said to him, where did you develop that style of being he said, When I was a teenager growing up in Kentucky when I was 18 years old, I needed a summer job. And we needed a new roof on my house. And so my father hired a local roofer. And the roofer hired me to assist him in building our own roof. And so we worked for like a month or however long it took like to build this roof. The guy didn't ask for any money at all right? Marshalls a teenager, the guy hadn't asked for any money.

They're building the roof, building the roof, building the roof. When he's finished, the guy asks Marshall's father to come up the ladder onto the roof and inspect the roof. And he went over what they had done and showed him the roof. And when Marshall's father gave him the thumbs up, then he said, Okay, here's your invoice. In other words, Marshall said, that always stuck with me as the way that I wanted to be. That I, you know what I mean? Like, that reminds me of that story that you just said. But it's it's the stories, it's these ideas. It's this factual stuff here, you said that this this person you were talking about thought of it as a weakness? And actually, it was, you know, a string? Yeah, it just beautifully puts everyone who's listening to this. And knowing how smart you are, there's a lot of smart people listening to this. Everyone listening to this, you can take a lot of steps towards finding your differentiation by just listing, what's obvious about what you do, and what's factual about what you do or so. And if you get stuck doing that, to me, it means you've raised the threshold too high, you suddenly in the middle started to try to be too smart or too professional, or too good, or try to come to an answer too quickly.

Like you're screwing yourself. It's like lower that threshold. There was a famous poet, William Stafford, who died a few years ago, Stafford used to write a poem every single day. And someone said to him, how do you write a poem F like, some of the poems are long, how do you write a poem every single day? And he said, You lower your standards. And a lot of the poems will be crap, and some of them will be good. So the same thing with the facts in the obvious some will be not worth it and some will be worth it.

Resources & Go Deeper

"The Power of Emotions in Decision Making" - Psychology Today

This article emphasizes the significant role emotions play in decision-making processes. It challenges the notion that emotions hinder decision-making, presenting them instead as essential motivators that guide our decisions. It argues that without emotions, we would lack the motivation to act. It also provides insights into using emotions effectively in decision-making, highlighting the importance of emotional intelligence skills for better outcomes.

The Power of Emotions in Decision Making | Psychology Today

"How to Make Great Decisions, Quickly" - Harvard Business Review

Although not directly focused on emotional decision-making, this article from Harvard Business Review provides valuable insights into the decision-making process, particularly in a business context. It outlines strategies for making efficient and effective decisions, emphasizing the importance of involving the right people with relevant expertise and ensuring that decisions are made as close to the point of action as possible.

How to Make Great Decisions, Quickly (hbr.org)

"The Emotions That Drive Business Decision Making" - B2B International

This article discusses the influence of emotions in business-to-business (B2B) decision-making, leveraging Plutchik’s Wheel of Emotions to explain how emotions can affect business choices. It highlights that while emotions supplement rational needs, they play a critical role in building relationships and loyalty between businesses. The article also notes that in professional settings, decisions tend to be more deliberate and conscious due to the complexity and accountability inherent in business environments.

The Emotions That Drive Business Decision Making - B2B International