If you want to be a market leader, you need to sound different from your competitors. Nike doesn't sound like Adidas. Apple doesn't talk like Microsoft. Coke and Pepsi use different words to describe the experience of drinking a nearly identical beverage. Harley-Davidson is in a class all its own when it comes to lifestyle.

Harley-Davidson wasn't always a class apart. At one time, they were just another motorcycle manufacturer (and a struggling one at that). Ken Schmidt, then communications director of Harley-Davidson, changed the company's sound. His success in positioning Harley as a lifestyle brand has lessons for all companies. Some you can find in his new book, Make Some Noise.

If you want to get started today on setting your company apart in your industry, here are three of Schmidt's communication ideas you can practice now. I recently used them to start positioning our own company away from our competitors.

1. Market dominators don't talk about quality.

A sure way for your company to stay in the middle of the pack is to talk about quality. Even though you may be committed to customer satisfaction and believe your people make a difference, it's likewise for your competition. They say the same things to their customer base.

Market dominators don't spend time telling people what should be taken for granted. Of course you're selling quality products and you care about your consumers. If you didn't, you would be out of business.

2. Market dominators don't sound like their competitors.

Market dominators sound different from their competitors. They don't use the same vocabulary as the rest of the industry. When you use the same words to describe your company or product as your competitors do theirs, you end up making yourself a commodity.

To stop speaking like the rest, Schmidt suggests you do a "competitive noise" summary. To make the summary, read the marketing copy of your competitors. Identify the words they use to describe their business and to position themselves. Keep this list handy as you work on idea three.

For our company, we found all our competitors talked about "great customer service." They all talked about "expertise." So those were two phrases we knew we would drop from describing our company and services.

3. Market dominators say something worth repeating.

People remember what market dominators say. Nike's "Just do it," Apple's "Think different," and Verizon's "Can you hear me now?" are memorable. These phrases defied people's expectations and were different from what similar companies were saying.

Schmidt says if you want to sound different, you have to complete the following communication challenge. 1. Think of your company. 2. Then describe who you are, whom you do it for, and, 3. why people should choose you. Don't use any of the words on the competitive noise summary.

This is why Harley-Davidson says "disciples" instead of customers and talks about "lifestyle" instead of motorcycles and transportation.

As for our company, we're still trying out new phrases like "learning company," "transform," "optimistic," and "healthy growth," which our competitors are not using. Since we just started, we'll have to keep you posted on the results.

Using a new vocabulary is all about getting your clients' attention and making them curious. Once you have that, it opens the door to storytelling. A story they'll repeat to themselves and others because your company is different from anything else out there.

Published on: Apr 22, 2019
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.