To stay in the game, you need to change the game.

"Think different". Apple’s well known advertising slogan, conceived in the late 90s, was initially criticized due to the bad use of English.

Many thought it contained a grammatical error and should have been “think differently”, an adverb instead of an adjective. But the meaning of Apple’s ad was not to think in a different way, but to think of different things – to think about the square pegs, and to ignore the status quo. How true!

When things aren’t different enough, they are often ignored. As consumers we’re overwhelmed by loads of similar information, ideas, products, services and offers, and we tend to dismiss them. When something different comes along, it grabs our attention. At the very least we will raise an eyebrow and it won’t be lost in the sea of uniformity.

Companies realize -but at the same time overlook- the importance of differentiation. They often instinctively follow their competitors and end up offering similar products and services, which are marginally, if at all different (aka ‘better’) from what’s already out there. The end result? They remain invisible.

Henry Ford once said, "if I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses". Instead he built a car, the 'model T'. It’s clear that groundbreaking, original ideas do not come around very often. Thinking different is far more difficult than following the pack.

There are of course cases, where progress may come through continuous evolution and not groundbreaking differentiation. Porsche’s 911 is definitely such a case. It’s been on a steady course of incremental improvements throughout its 50+ years of production, while maintaining to a large extent its original external shape since inception. So, how much differentiation is needed to turn heads?

Companies with long tradition and strong brands have an easier task. Their products are more easily recognized than those of companies with weaker or non-existent brand awareness. Newcomers have to be more disruptive. To fight the incumbents and stay in the game, they need to try to change the game.

Trying to clearly differentiate from the competition should be the first and most important objective of any product developer or marketer. But does it necessarily have to be linked with innovation, or even more so with technological innovation? For example, what does a customer loyalty scheme need to stand out from the crowd? Is clever marketing enough, or are more tangible differentiation points required? Perhaps bigger discounts? A mobile app? A different method of recognition? Is there a secret sauce for success?

Apple has been a bright example of redefining the retail industry and creating new markets from scratch. Not because of their "Think different" ad, but because they were crazy enough to think they could change the world. And they did.