A B2B Marketing Differentiation Model

Kano Marketing Model

The Kano Model (developed in the 1980s) is a method to enhance product development through an elevated focus on client requirements and preferences: aka customer satisfaction. A concept that became a first principle of Agile).[i]

Here, I advocate using it for a less obvious purpose: B2B marketing and sales enablement content.

The Kano Model’s view is from the market perspective. – the only perspective that matters – and focuses on three fundamental attributes: must haves, performance, and delighters.

This simple breakdown of what matters to prospective clients makes abundantly clear where marketing should focus and will help drive content creation that is more customer oriented, relevant, and resonant. This is especially valuable for professional services providers that struggle to truly differentiate themselves in their targeted market.

There is too much marketing content on non-differentiating “must haves”

“Must haves” is exactly what it sounds like: what you offer must, at a minimum, perform the functions and have the features expected by the client. At the very least, a minimally viable product (MVP) capable of producing specific and predictable outcomes for which the product or service is purchased.

Absent this, your offer would be considered unfit for purpose. The must-haves are table stakes only. Worse, must-haves are, or very quickly become, generic: the components that exists at the core of all products and services that eventually become commoditized.

It is important to realize that generic attributes never increase client satisfaction. In fact, they can only detract from client satisfaction. If you don’t offer the “generic,” you lose. If you offer them, you don’t win. It is, after all, only what is expected.

Marketing focus on what you do, the features and functionality, as opposed to client-focused benefits and outcomes, is focusing on commodity: The generic (read undifferentiated) and price sensitive

Marketing the table stakes, is “like a bespoke tailor telling you that they can cut and stitch.” [ii] Not very compelling. It will not establish market differentiation, attract your ideal client, or engender loyalty.

There is no such thing as a commodity. All goods and services are differentiable….When the generic product is undifferentiated, the offered product makes the difference in getting customers and…keeping them.
—Theodore Levitt [iii]

Performance: more is (always) better, but still not enough

A step up in importance from must haves, performance capabilities provide an opportunity for market positioning against competitors.

However, even the next big thing, killer app, service capability, or product functionality has a fairly short life span. They quickly fade to must-have status as competitors match them and prospective clients eventually expect them.

Here too if you don’t deliver excellent performance  –  and continuously improve performance – you lose. If you do deliver, you don’t necessarily win. Over time the performance capabilities that once differentiated your offer become the new table stakes as clients match them and those capabilities become ubiquitous.

Ubiquity is not a competitive advantage. Nor is it an effective marketing strategy.

To be sure, you will certainly want to trumpet your advantage –  new features, new functionality, advanced performance. While it lasts. But even then, to be truly effective, marketing focus needs to be on the offered product (the outcomes achieved for the client and their benefits) not what is on a glide path to commodity as soon as it is introduced.

It is “the offered product makes the difference in getting customers and…keeping them.”

Marketing the “generic” and generic marketing won’t do.

[Clients] never just buy the ‘generic’ product…They buy something that transcends these designations-and what that ‘something’ is helps determine from whom they'll buy, what they'll pay, and whether, in the view of the seller, they're ‘loyal’ or ‘fickle.’
—Levitt [iv]

Understanding what that “something” is, and why it matters is critical to effective marketing and sales enablement content. It is the difference between leading and falling behind.

The Delighters

These are the attributes of a service that truly delight, even surprise the client. In fact, the individual client, or the marketplace at large, might not have even known these service concepts were available until you delivered them.

Your client did not know they needed or wanted them. Here is the salient in terms of marketing. The truly innovative providers – those that not only capture market share but create new markets and command premiums – focus their efforts here.

Part of Kano's theory is that prospective clients can only partially tell us what is important to them. They simply do not know what is available, understand with specificity what they need, or how they might benefit.

Differentiation is not limited to giving customers what they expect. What they expect may be augmented by things they have never thought about.
—Levitt [v]

This is where you have the opportunity to exceed expectation. The “delighters” – whether product or service, UX/UI, or CX –must be the focus of content marketing and woven into the fabric of all customer communications and touchpoints from presale to post-closing interactions.

Remember, in the experience economy, it’s not just about the product or service; it’s the sum total of all touchpoints and interactions working together to deepen relationships and build trust.

The focus must move off what you do (“must haves” and “performance”), and onto how you do it (innovation, thought leadership, “delighters”) and their impact on client outcomes. This approach separates those that deliver value from competitors who simply sell a product or service.

As such, the Kano Model is an excellent tool, not only for marketing, but also for business developers in identifying winning go-to-market strategies (benchmarking your competitors won't do this for you). These models can be developed for markets, verticals, targeted accounts, and client-specific profiles enabling highly targeted and effective sales campaigns.

[i] Agile Principal 1: “Our highest priority is to satisfy the customer through early and continuous delivery of valuable software.” The 12 Principles behind the Agile Manifesto.

[ii] Perfect Client Limited (2022). “Positioning in Practice.

[iii] Levitt, T. (1980). “Marketing Success Through Differentiation - of Anything.” Harvard Business Review.

[iv] Ibid.

[v]  Ibid.

[vi] Merkle (2024) “Engagement to Empowerment: Winning in Today’s Experience Economy.