Is your business different? Are you sure?

According to Youngme Moon, senior associate dean and chair of the MBA program at Harvard Business School, 99% of executives think their business is different from its competitors. Unfortunately, most consumers can’t tell the difference between one business’ offerings and those of similar businesses. (Think bottled water or furniture.) And as a result, those consumers end up more confused about which products they should buy.

Youngme brought up this fact as part of her keynote yesterday at the Inbound Marketing Summit in Boston. This two-day event (which ends today) focuses on social media, blogging, and other marketing tactics that let customers find you — as opposed to outbound marketing tactics where you are pushing out a message.

Being different makes you irreplaceable to your customers, and being irreplaceable leads to greater loyalty. And yet, many businesses are afraid to be different, because that means taking a risk and being alone, Youngme explained. Making it more difficult is the fact that, when businesses ask for customer feedback, the responses that come back often say, in essence, “Be more like this other company.” That’s because while customers can tell you how they want you to improve, they can’t tell you how to be different. That’s something you have to do on your own.

So how do you separate yourself from other businesses like yours? Youngme suggested three ways:

  1. Embrace the negative. Don’t be afraid to do something that people may not like. Youngme provided the example of IKEA, whose idea to make people assemble their own furniture has made them a unique and popular brand. Similarly, Twitter’s concept of 140-character messages in a world of over-sharing was not instantly embraced; now the social network has more than 200 million users.
  2. Resist the temptation to over-listen to customers. Asking for feedback, and responding to it, is always valuable. But you can’t let your customers drive every aspect of what you do. Apple is one brand Youngme cited that doesn’t conduct any focus groups, and keeps customers guessing. And yet, time and again it produces products that become in demand as soon as they’re released.
  3. Have an idea for how you will be different. Any idea can be a good one, even the crazy-sounding ones (see IKEA and Twitter). Unfortunately, most ideas that are deemed crazy are often dismissed. If you want to be different, you need to embrace a culture where any idea can be tried.

Difference often comes from passion, Youngme added. If you can authentically communicate your passion, and why you do what you do, then you can set yourself and your business apart. After all, passion is magnetic and contagious. If you’re passionate, and your customers can feel that, then your customers will be passionate about you.

And that can make all the difference.

What does your business do that makes it different? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.