What is a Difference Engine? The power of differentiation

What is a Difference Engine? The power of differentiation

Posted by Maddy Leslie Picture of Maddy Leslie on 12 December 2022

‘Stop apologising! It’s OK if your ideas are different, your goals are big — don’t be afraid of what others would say. You are skilled, capable, and talented — you deserve to be a leader, and you are enough.’

Joy Fitzgerald, author and DEI advocate

At Articulate, we work on one founding principle: that differentiation is the key to success.

Just as a successful leader will fearlessly make the most of their ambitions, differences and talents, so can your business.

Only one business in any given market can be the cheapest, all the others compete based on their differentiation and positioning.

Today, we show how differentiation helps you grow your business, accelerate sales, defend margins and outpace your competitors. And, we unveil our powerful differentiation framework: The Difference Engine.


Table of Contents

  1. The power of differentiation
  2. Introducing ‘The Difference Engine’
  3. What fuels the Difference Engine
  4. The outputs of the Difference Engine
  5. Components of the Difference Engine
  6. How do you build your Difference Engine?

The power of differentiation

More than 50 percent of respondents say their positioning and marketing failed to differentiate their business, according to 2022 data from our High Performance Marketing Scorecard. Those same respondents had low scores in other key areas such as lead generation. There is a correlation between undifferentiated businesses and poor performance across marketing more generally.

What do we mean by the term ‘differentiation’, then?

Well, we mean your identity as distinct from others. The things that make you original. Maybe even odd. Worthy of attention, expressive, diverse, value-added, authoritative, helpful, customer-focused, people-led, more than the sum of your parts.

Differentiated businesses stand out. People sit up. They take notice.

OK. That’s differentiation, so what’s the “engine” all about?

Glad you asked. Grab your anorak and enter our weirdo workshop. Watch out for things that go whizz or possibly bang.

Introducing ‘The Difference Engine’

The Difference Engine is a philosophy of marketing and differentiation best practices that we’ve honed as an agency over the twenty-something years we’ve been in operation.

It’s the brainchild of our collective experience, innovation and expertise.

It’s also a process of steps and activities that businesses can follow and adopt themselves. We won’t go into too much detail about every step here because it’s a huge topic that we’ll be exploring in other articles and papers (watch this space). What we will do is outline the framework so you know where we’re coming from.

The Difference Engine, then. It’s refined. Balanced. Thoughtfully constructed and validated.

With a Difference Engine firmly embedded in your business, you will have the power of differentiation at your fingertips. It will help you accelerate your growth and build the momentum you need to reach even your most ambitious goals.

Engine stalled?

>> Test your business with our B2B Brand Differentiator <<

A brief history lesson

The term ‘Difference Engine’ originally refers to the works of Charles Babbage, the founding father of computing, and Ada Lovelace, the first computer scientist.

These two worked together to engineer new technology, invent ground-breaking solutions and solve complex problems. They started the computer revolution that has changed the world.

As fellow technologists, geeks and inventors, we’ve made the Difference Engine our own.

However, we’re not keeping it to ourselves. Oh no. We think EVERY business should have their own Difference Engine. That’s why there’s content all over our blog on how to build yours, DIY-style.

(Naturally, if you’d rather expert engineers did it for you… you can hire us.)

The schematic

Difference Engine schematic

Through various iterations of the Difference Engine, and the thinking outlined in later works, Lovelace and Babbage created the principles of computing that we use today.

After some experiments, the Difference Engine was envisioned as a crank-powered “computer” made of stacks of gears. Those gears or “figure wheels” interlinked in a complicated fashion to calculate numerical problems and then print the results. These calculations unlocked future innovations. The types of innovations that got us the internet and space travel.

Paying homage to the original, in our Difference Engine, eight pillars — or columns — make up the main part of the engine. They are comprised of 48 components that stack, interlock and impact one another. Every one has a part to play. The more parts are in motion, the better, bigger the results, and the more advanced problems you can solve. Conversely, if too many components are not moving they will likely jam your engine and halt progress. We don’t want that, do we?

Marketing is a system. It’s a complex machine. Everything is connected to everything else. Our Difference Engine reflects that reality.

What fuels the Difference Engine

Engines convert one form of energy into another.

That means they require an input, like fuel, to feed into a mechanism for transformation, calculation or good old-fashioned combustion. Only then do you get the outcomes you desire. Car goes vroom. Apollo 11 gets to the moon. Quantum computer solves the answer to life, the universe and everything…

So, what do you need in order to fuel your engine?

The better quality your fuel, the more efficiently the engine will run. Plus, the bigger the engine, the more you can put in, the faster you can go and the more you get out at the end. Quality and quantity both play a part here.

Despite all this talk of engines, it’s not, in fact, rocket science. You need to put in the usual resources:

  • Time
  • Motivation
  • Attention
  • Expertise
  • Stakeholder buy-in
  • and, of course, budget (10 percent of revenue, the Gartner gods decree)

That should about do it.

The outputs of the Difference Engine

On the other side, for all that energy you put in, what do you get out?

We’ve talked a bit about this already, but let’s get specific. A differentiated business will grow bigger, faster. It will get record profits, because it stands out from competitors and attracts an engaged audience of paying customers.

We’ve told you more than half of respondents to our survey felt that their business was not properly differentiated. Clearly, there has never been a greater need for a consistent, tried and tested framework for companies to construct better positioning and engineer sustainable differentiation.

In actual fact, there’s more to differentiation than the bottom line. It triggers a chain reaction that leads to even more valuable outcomes that boost innovation, employee wellbeing and other positive impacts.

Think about what you would do if you had such a healthy pipeline that you end up with a waiting list of potential clients. You could pick and choose who gets to work with you. You’d go from order-taker to esteemed partner. Got a disengaged client that takes up too much of your time? You no longer have to hold on to them just for revenue’s sake. Let them go their own way and focus on the people that want to partner with you. Conversely, the joy of having keyed-in clients cannot be underestimated. Have we mentioned how much we love our clients, lately?

Businesses in this position get the chance to work with companies that share their values and that are a force for good in and of themselves. They become part of a community that drives positive change. They can lead the charge. Why not? There is no rule saying you can’t be a for-profit business that is sustainable, contributes to important causes and treats employees well. You could have a business that is an ideal place to work, which attracts and empowers the best talent, with a culture that makes clients want to work with you. All while having a net zero impact. How about that.

Lastly, what wouldn’t you give to be a household name? A brand name that is used as the generic term, even? Hoover. Biro. Google. If you were the most trusted voice — the “thought leader” in other words — for your audience, you get to set the terms of the conversation. You become the authority in the market. The advisor. The one everyone else looks up to and tries to copy. That also means you’re the one innovating so you can give the best advice and make the smartest moves possible. That’s how you future-proof your business.

Components of the Difference Engine

Now we understand what fuels the Difference Engine and what the benefits are, let’s take a look at the engine itself.

Here is where we get to the heart of it: the parts that make the engine work. These are the components that have to be in place to achieve all those lovely outcomes. First, take a look at the eight pillars that house the 48 parts of the Difference Engine as a table:

1. Your mission 2. Talent and culture 3. The toolkit 4. Strategic blueprints 5. Brand architecture 6. Thought Leadership 7. Lead generation 8. Iterative optimisation
Industry analysis Company culture Customer relationship management software Positioning Logo Campaign calendar Lead capture Behavioural analytics
Competitive positioning Purpose Tech suite Tone of voice Marketing collateral SEO keyword plan Lead nurturing A/B testing
Product-market fit Sustainability Marketing automation Messaging Design language Content creation Sales enablement Conversion optimisation
Business vision Employer branding Sales automation Ideal client profile User experience Product literature Qualification and lead scoring Personalisation and segmentation
Reporting and metrics Skills and resources Playbooks Personas Technical search engine optimisation Customer evidence Sales collateral Networking
Marketing strategy Processes Marketing channels Buyer journey Website development Promotion Upsell and cross-sell Customer advocacy

Now, let’s look at each pillar individually. We’ll explain a bit about what the pillars mean and how you can think about implementing the components for your own situation.

Your mission

The analysis, metrics and strategies that will help you achieve your goals as a business. These are contextualised within your industry and benchmarked against competitors. This is how you position your organisation based on where you are, now, and where you’d like to get to in the future.

You need stand-out ideas, ambitious goals and to measure your activities in order to succeed.

  • Industry analysis - “What is happening in the industry and where do we fit in?“
  • Competitive positioning - “How does my business compare to competitors?“
  • Product-market fit - “How well do our products and services solve for the client?“
  • Business vision - “What needs to happen and how do we align objectives to get there?“
  • Reporting and metrics - “What can I measure to see the value of our activities?“
  • Marketing strategy - “What are the best ideas that we can implement this year?“

Talent and culture

The people. The company culture that empowers them to do their best work and the purpose and values that makes that work worth doing. And, the repeatable, scalable processes that keep the wheels turning.

All differentiated businesses have a distinct culture, one that attracts and retains talent, operates efficiently, inspires others and tells a story worth hearing.

  • Company culture - “What holds our company together?“
  • Purpose - “Why?“ (see Simon Sinek’s ‘Start with Why’ TED talk)
  • Sustainability - “How do we make choices that have a positive impact on the world?“
  • Employer branding - “How is my business viewed by potential recruits and existing talent?“
  • Skills and resources - “How does my organisation get the best work done?“
  • Processes - “What steps will it take to be effective and efficient?“

The toolkit

The platforms, channels and playbooks that power your marketing and put your customers at the heart of your business. These tools, when integrated as part of a fit-for-purpose tech stack, enable real-time collaboration, data visibility, analytics and sales and marketing automation.

You need the right tools to craft a Difference Engine that works well.

  • Customer relationship management software - “Where do we keep data about leads, deals and customers?“
  • Tech suite - “How does our tech stack fit together to best serve my business’s needs?“
  • Marketing automation - “How can our marketing be more efficient, with the help of technology?“
  • Sales automation - “How can our sales be more efficient, with the help of technology?“
  • Playbooks - “What resources can our team create and use consistently?“
  • Marketing channels - “Where should we be communicating with our audience?“

Strategic blueprints

The strategic foundation, the positioning, your USP (unique selling point) — those core elements that influence everything from your content to your website. It includes the messages you want to communicate to your customers, in a voice that is all your own. Plus, who that audience is, what they care about and how they can be targeted at every stage of the buyer’s journey.

  • Positioning - “How do we make the business and our offerings more memorable?“
  • Tone of voice - “What does my business’s ‘voice’ sound like and is it recognisable?“
  • Messaging - “What are the key messages we want to get across to our audience?“
  • Ideal client profile - “Which sectors, verticals, and customer and company profiles are we targeting?“
  • Personas - “What is an ideal representation of my customer(s) and what they care about?“
  • Buyer journey - “How does my customer’s journey look from the first touchpoint?“

Brand architecture

The visual assets for your brand and how they are experienced, both by search engine crawlers and by your audience. So, your logo, search engine-optimised website and overall brand imagery.

Often, this is your first foot in the door with prospects. Here is where you can make an instant impact and a lasting impression.

  • Logo - “Does my company logo stand out from the crowd and accurately represent my business?“
  • Marketing collateral - “How do we represent ourselves visually as a business?“
  • Design language - “Does my organisation have a well-documented set of design rules that ensures consistency?“
  • User experience - “Is it easy for site visitors to find what they need on our website?“
  • Technical search engine optimisation - “Is it easy for Google to crawl our website and does it find the site fast, accessible and authoritative?“
  • Website development - “Does the company website both look good and function well to bring in business?“

Thought leadership

The content that marks you out in your industry. This is the stuff that gets you noticed by search engines, by industry peers, by suppliers, by prospects. It’s the place where you establish your authority, knowledgeability and credentials (and personality!). It is how you communicate across channels, such as your blog, social media or email.

It’s the mechanism to inform, connect and inspire others.

  • Campaign calendar - “What do we put into the content publishing schedule and why?“
  • SEO keyword plan - “How does our business answer potential customers’ most pressing Google search questions?“
  • Content creation - “How do I share my company’s unique knowledge and perspectives?”
  • Product literature - “How persuasively do we talk about our products and services?“
  • Customer evidence - “What proof can we share that showcases our business’s capabilities?“
  • Promotion - “How do we tell the world about our content, offerings and culture?“

Lead generation

The way you nurture and process leads, such as with gated offers like white papers or eBooks. This is where companies must begin to build on that relationship with prospects, from first-touch onward. It covers the qualification and handover process between departments, with whatever assets are required to make that journey an unparalleled, positive experience.

  • Lead capture - “What does the business do to attract lots of quality leads?“
  • Lead nurturing - “How do we nurture leads so they are receptive to a sales pitch?“
  • Sales enablement - “How can we align marketing with sales to enable a solid pipeline?“
  • Qualification and lead scoring - “How do we define the quality of a lead, and who makes that decision?“
  • Sales collateral - “What assets do our sales team have to inform and persuade prospects?“
  • Upsell and cross-sell - “How do we expand existing business relationships?“

Iterative optimisation

The continuous process that really steps your marketing up a gear. This is where the work you do can get you from one-of-the-pack to the tearaway leader.

Sufficient observation, testing and optimisation means you can build intelligence into your marketing. And do so at a level that reaches each and every person directly, delighting customers from new prospects through to enthusiastic evangelists for your brand.

  • Behavioural analytics - “How is my company’s audience behaving and interacting with our site?“
  • A/B testing - “In what ways are we using data to test what works best?“
  • Conversion optimisation - “How is my business trying to optimise conversions at every stage of the journey?“
  • Personalisation and segmentation - “How do we automatically target subsections of our audience, and individuals?“
  • Networking - “How do we build a connected network within and outside our industry?“
  • Customer advocacy - “How do we keep customers engaged and eager to give us referrals?“

How do you build your Difference Engine?

How to create and assemble all those components is a big question. Too big to answer here, but watch this space.

Saying that, if you answer these^ questions you’ll be well on your way to getting your Difference Engine up and running. So that’s your first step.

One last thought before we leave you. Differentiation means daring to be different. The “weird kid” at school. The busker that refuses to get a “real job.” The risk-taker and the out-of-the-box thinker. The out-on-a-limber. That’s a scary prospect, for some; an enticing one for others.

Take heart! Be bold! Be different!

You’ll find your audience, your customers, your tribe. That’s the road less travelled. That’s the journey worth taking, powered by the little engine that could.

Build a differentiated business brand that stands out from the crowd.