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Your product is your program. If you can't eloquently and succinctly express that product's differentiators, it probably means that none exist.
early four years ago, "Shark Tank" debuted on ABC. The show features entrepreneurs who pitch their products to a panel of potential investors in an attempt to earn funding for their startup enterprises. Some walk away with lucrative offers; others go home empty handed. But what fascinates me is that despite four seasons' worth of precedent, so many of the show's participants still don't get it. If you walk in without a marketable differentiator, nobody's going to invest.

Good salespeople are intimately aware of this fact, and they work hard to ensure clients know what makes their products superior to the competition's offerings. Exhibit managers are familiar with the concept of differentiation as well. Your key messages, show-daily advertisements, graphics panels, and live presentations are littered with boastful claims of being the best, cheapest, largest, most efficient, etc. And yet, for many marketers, the differentiation stops there.

While exhibitors are generally astute at pitching their companies' products, most fall flat when it comes to selling their spaces. Every so often, I put exhibitors to the test by asking, "Why should trade show attendees visit your booth?" or "What makes your booth better than the one across the aisle?" Nine times out of 10, their responses have nothing to do with their exhibits or experiences, and everything to do with their products.

There's nothing wrong with being confident in your offerings and their value to attendees. But if your booth has no unique differentiator, you're relying entirely on your product to sell itself - in which case I'd argue you've not done your job as an exhibit marketer. If product specs alone comprise the sole reason why clients and prospects should give you a moment of their time, why not eschew exhibitry and experiential marketing altogether, splay those widgets out across a card table, and treat your trade shows like flea markets where the purchase is the experience?

As a face-to-face marketing professional, your product is not the gadget your company manufactures, nor is it the service your clients pay to obtain. Your product is your program, whether it's a tabletop exhibit or a multicity road show. If you can't eloquently and succinctly express that product's differentiators, it probably means that none exist, and your exhibits and events rank somewhere near the bottom of the trade show food chain. Absent anything that makes it special, you and your program are the marketing equivalent of day-old chum.

Sure, if you're one of the big fish at the shows you attend, defining at least one differentiator is easy: The size of your exhibit, or the ubiquity of your branding, or even the position of your space on the show floor can definitely help to differentiate you from other exhibitors. If you're in a 10-by-10-foot space with a minnow-sized budget, your differentiator might be as simple as engaging, professional, attentive booth staffers (in which case those staffers better be the most congenial crew in the entire convention center). Your differentiator could also take the form of a beautiful exhibit design, a memorable activity, or an informative and engaging presentation - so long as it offers visitors something more than what they could just as easily access on your company's website. Bottom line, you don't need a laser light show or a behemoth booth in order to stand out, but you do need something, anything, that makes your exhibit experience unique.

So define some differentiators for the sharks at your shows. If you discover you don't have any, it's high time you fish or cut bait. Because if you don't offer something special for attendees to chew on when they swim past your booth, I guarantee they're less likely to bite.E

Travis Stanton, editor
tstanton@exhibitormagazine.com
@StantonTravis
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