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    Whenever business owners are asked the question, “what makes your company different from the competition?” they almost always answer by saying “our quality.” But how can that be true if they all think that it’s the quality of their product or service that sets them apart?

    It’s a Catch-22 based on the false premise that quality is an objective, measurable attribute. It’s not. It’s completely subjective. Like that old saying, “beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” quality means different things to different people.

    Even the American Society for Quality (who knew there was such a thing) defines quality subjectively. “The quality of a product or service refers to the perception of the degree to which the product or service meets the customer's expectations. Quality has no specific meaning unless related to a specific function and/or object.”

    Twenty years ago Ford’s advertising slogan was “Quality is Job One,” a response to, what was back then, Ford’s reputation for making cars that, most definitely did not meet customer’s expectations. But, today, things are very different, for Ford and for every auto maker because quality is now a minimum standard, not a sign of excellence.

    Ask the next 50 people you meet, “what’s the best car?” and you’re likely to get 50 different answers. Why? Because each person has their own set of criteria for what’s “best.” Some want high gas mileage, while others want cargo space. Some want great handling. Others desire superior engine performance. Or the latest safety features. Or towing capacity, or, or, or…you get the picture. You can’t market the “quality” of any one car without also identifying the “qualities” or attributes representing that vehicle’s claim.

    Today’s business owners need to learn the same lessons the auto manufacturers learned decades ago. Quality is a buzzword, and weak one at that. Instead, you must focus on the qualities that make your product or service unique. Examine the things you sell and evaluate their attributes to determine which groups of customers would find those particular qualities most desirable. Some examples:

    SIZE MATTERS. Warehouse clubs like Costco and Sam’s carved a profitable retail niche simply by repackaging the same products we usually buy in supermarkets and department stores. Now you could get 36 rolls of toilet paper or 500 paper cups or five tubes of toothpaste in one shrink-wrapped package. Such a deal! Does it appeal to everyone? Of course not. Single people and those living in apartments or small homes might not be able to store all that stuff. But that doesn’t matter. The big packaging makes the warehouse clubs different, implying there’s a better deal if you buy in bulk and it works.

    Being small works well, too. Volkswagen built its entire reputation on the idea “Think Small.” The VW Beetle is an icon, instantly identifiable to almost everyone. The Mini Cooper, the Smart Car and a host of new models now being introduced emphasize smallness as a quality worth coveting. If you’re looking to make your product different than the rest, try making a new size. It’ll get your customer’s attention.

    START A NEW CATEGORY. The last thing the world seemed to need was another carbonated beverage. The guys who started Red Bull understood that. Instead of just putting another soda on the market, they invented an entirely new category: the energy drink. They packaged it differently, sold it away from the soda section of the supermarket, gave it a cool, memorable name and then watched their brand explode into a billion dollar business. But, outside of the extra caffeine and a few dye colors, Red Bull is virtually indistinguishable from Mountain Dew or any other soda. Is it better? Doesn’t matter. It’s different. Maybe you don’t have to alter the product or service you’re currently providing. Instead, just reposition it with a new category.

    FOCUS ON QUALITY ATTRIBUTES. David Ogilvy, the world’s most famous adman, wrote a classic ad for Rolls Royce many years ago. Naturally, the brand name itself represents quality in the minds of many people. But Ogilvy wanted to set a new, higher standard for workmanship that would serve as an example of what quality means to Rolls Royce. The headline: “At 60 miles an hour the loudest noise in this Rolls-Royce comes from the ticking of the clock." Please forgive Mr. Ogilvy’s outdated clock reference. He wrote it in 1958, but the image he creates is unmatched. You want to talk about quality? Beat that.

    VALUES COUNT. When you think of quality products, it’s doubtful bratwurst comes to mind. But, if you visit the Johnsonville Sausage Company in Sheboygan Falls, Wisconsin, they’ll tell you all about how great their sausage is, because it’s made to fit their customers’ lifestyles. The Johnsonville values are “Great Taste and Fun.” They know their product will be perceived as high quality when they fulfill those two attributes in the mind of the customer. Is Johnsonville Sausage “the best?” Who knows? They just sell more sausage than any other company in America.

    None of this is to suggest companies should give up producing high quality products and services. On the contrary; they should be striving to make things their products “the best” as perceived by those who desire them.

    But, if you believe your business is producing a high quality product, no one will ever know until you focus your message on the unique qualities that have special appeal to a customer. Ready to discover what really makes you different? Start by asking that question to every one of your customers.

    And if any of them should happen to say “quality,” be sure to ask them, “which one?”