Mark Amtower


Differentiation in the age of commoditization

In a government contracting landscape littered with the landmines of Federal Strategic Sourcing Initiative, lowest price, technically acceptal contracts, and reduced fees for skilled personnel, the need for your company to stand apart and above the crowd is more important than ever. Regardless of what they call it, GSA and the Office of Federal Procurement Policy  continue to push low price in as many ways as possible.

Winning on price alone is not a winning strategy for most companies. Further I don’t believe government procurement based mainly on price is good for the country.

I spoke at two conferences recently, each highlighting the need for company differentiation in similar circumstances.

Speaking at the fall Association for Proposal Management Professionals conference I addressed the value of the subject matter expert position in the bidding process. While there I attended a few other sessions, both on communications. Chris Simmons and Robert Katz both discussed communications in ways that help companies stand out in the oral portion of proposals, but both presentations also have broader implications. Communicating clearly and telling good stories is part of the sales process as well as part of the capture process. Speaking well is always a huge differentiator.

At the NITAAC Contract Holders event I spoke about what it takes to sell from a GWAC, in part about why you need to differentiate your company’s capabilities. Lots of the Q&A revolved around how to respond to RFQs, especially when the customer does not know you.

If the buyer doesn’t know you, that is not their problem –it’s your problem, and one that you can and should address.

Both conferences brought to the fore the need for legitimately and carefully differentiating your company in ways that resonate with buyers and influencers, then developing and sharing information around your differentiation points.

Value marketing content

Differentiating then developing and sharing pertinent content will help address concerns about whether the customer knows you or not. Market Connections 2015 Federal Content Marketing Review has one slide that illustrates how content is valuable at every stage of the procurement process, from the identification of the need for a product or service to the decision to award.

The slide is a graph of the seven stages of that process and eight types of content that can influence the process. The seven stages are identification of need, budget allocation, determining requirements, drafting RFP, identifying qualified contractors, proposal evaluation and then the award. The content types include webinars, case studies, enewsletters, ebooks/interactive publications, marketing collateral, infographics, podcasts, and blogs. The graph illustrates which types of content work best at each stage.

Differentiation is much more than simply saying “we’re really good at X”. It is the process of determining what you do best that customers need, then providing verification to the customer that you are indeed good at what you claim.

In the 2012 Government Contractor Study (also by Market Connections), there is a slide on the best marketing tactics. The number 3 tactic is “thought leadership materials”- and it has an asterisk saying that companies that produce these materials have a higher win rate.

top marketing elements

Why a higher win rate? They are differentiating themselves by claiming a slice of intellectual real estate that is valuable to the buyer, then developing and sharing information to facilitate the buying process, skewing the buyer’s preference toward them.

To be successful, the process of differentiation needs good content for validation of your differentiation claim. Otherwise you may as well have a business card that proclaims your goal is 150 percent customer satisfaction, exceeding customer expectations, claiming your Mom makes the best cookies or some equally nebulous claim.

About the Author

Mark Amtower advises government contractors on all facets of business-to-government (B2G) marketing and leveraging LinkedIn. Find Mark on LinkedIn at

Reader Comments

Sat, Nov 21, 2015 Amtower

All: thanks for taking the time to comment. This was not meant to be a comprehensive discussion on differentiation - that cannot be done in 600 words. This article is one of several I have written on this topic. My goal is to get people thinking about the elements of success in government contracting. Dave M: "deeply flawed" is your opinion and you are certainly entitled to it. There are many studies that back my point of view, and recent GovCon history bears it out as well. That being said, yes, comparison is certainly a significant part of the equation as well. Robert P: social media and content is part of it, and I agree with your RFP driven approach. The idea is not simply to differentiate, but to do so in a way that influences the buyer, the shapers of the RFPs and those writing the OMB 53s and 300s. This is a long-term game. Gorvan: you are correct in saying that most companies don't have any distinct intellectual capital but for those that do, it can help in the procurement process. I totally agree with your wrap-up in your last two sentences. Again- thanks to all for commenting.

Thu, Nov 19, 2015 Gorvan Mestrovich

To Robt. Polster's comments: I can't help but giggle a bit. First of all, almost all Federal professional services, as specified, are not looking for insight or deep innovation. Overwhelmingly they look for turning-the-crank, standard approaches, and no risk-taking. Secondly, most companies have no distinctive intellectual capital. That is not needed to sell successfully. A good track record is. As for withholding brilliance, there is little to withhold. The biggest risk of intellectual capital theft is from the US government. Government employees have little respect for proprietary information--vendors and their own. They frequently take a company's crown jewels and transplant it another contractor, program, or agency, or make it public. Also, in your comment you do not define differentiation the way most successful companies do. It is not doing well, but doing differently and well, or with different approaches and resources, that makes a firm differentiated.

Wed, Nov 18, 2015 Robert Polster Rockville, MD

Mark I essentially agree. Government contractors should use social media to publish content that reflects real insight to attract the attention of Government Executives and position themselves to shape RFPs. They should use content to proactively develop business, rather than allow themselves to be drawn into the low yield bidding game that I call RFP-centric business development. They should use content to create value.

Companies are typically reluctant to publish their insights because they fear idea theft. They fear that they will lose bids to competitors copying those insights and using them in their own proposals. That could happen sometimes, but that is small thinking. Companies need to think big. They need to think about the opportunities that await them if they publish their insights to win the attention of Government Executives and shape the direction of procurements.

Mon, Nov 16, 2015 Dave Mischbuccha

Your definition of differentiation seems, well (and sorry): deeply flawed. It is not enough to assert capability and success with a firm's approaches. Rather, you need to say--and support--why you are better than some/all/most competitors. It is to be distinctive. Comparison is the essence of differentiation, and that seems like Marketing and Sales 101. Do you agree?

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