You get what you pay for: a lesson in differentiation

You get what you pay for: a lesson in differentiation

Several years ago, I was in the market for a new backpack.  My beat-up Jansport bag had served me well through my college years, but it was time for an upgrade.  Personally speaking, I prefer to buy from small businesses, where quality is their mantra and, if necessary, a higher price point is fine.

Naturally, I took to the internet and began researching bags, looking through Chrome, Mission Workshop and Saddleback Leather Co. during the process.  Of these three, I was really drawn to the Saddleback Leather Co. in part due to their leather heirloom-quality craftsmanship.  Secondary to this, they do an excellent job at branding their site from head to toe.  They have the whole Anthony Bourdain “No Reservations” feel but market  transpose that feel to those folks who are interested in trekking the bush in Australia or Africa and taking their durable leather goods with them.

Full Disclosure: I’m not affiliated with Saddleback Leather Co.

Saddleback Leather Co.

To paraphrase from their company website:

Saddleback Leather Co. was started 15 years ago by Dave Munson, a traveler and man on the quest for the perfect leather bag.  During his visits to Southern Mexico, he worked as a volunteer English teacher but also longed for designing the perfect leather bag.  One day, he visited a leather shop and asked if they would consider building a bag he designed.  Shortly thereafter, Saddleback Leather Co. was born.  Since then, his product line has steadily expanded, offering casual, business and travel leather goods, not to mention some of the finest leather craftsmanship on the market today.

I was really impressed after reading Saddleback Leather Co.’s full story on their website. It’s hard not to fall in love with a company that proudly proclaims, “They’ll fight over it when you’re dead”, at the top of their page. It’s what separates them from other small businesses who don’t take that extra step to differentiate themselves from the rest of the pack. That kind of faith in your product and welcome sense of humor is really important when it comes to writing your own small business story.


This past summer, Dave Munson posted a video titled: “How to Knock off a Bag,” where, in a sarcastic, witty and humorous way, he gives competitors a glimpse of how to knock off his bag design.  But in the process, he gives customers a look into how well developed his bags are and the shortcuts that are commonly taken by larger mass-producing retailers.  This video has been so popular it’s claimed over 300k views—despite his other videos barely clearing over 3k!

Although some of you are probably scratching your heads and asking why he would give away his secrets, relax; it’s just an entertaining marketing spoof.  Regardless, here lie some lessons in product differentiation.


The video is broken down into several sections:

  1. Materials – leather grades and differences
  2. Design- craftsmanship, leather cuts and stitching
  3. Thread –types and durability
  4. Polyester – reinforcing high-stress areas
  5. Hardware – stainless steel 3.16 vs. lower-grade stainless steel/nickel plate
  6. Rivets – again, reinforcing high-stress areas
  7. Side Straps – two pieces glued and sewn together vs. combining several scrap pieces


Simon Sinek, a thought leader and author, spoke a few years ago on differentiation.  It boils down to “stating what your business believes in and why you exist” he says, and “those that believe, will be drawn to you.”  Saddleback Leather Co.’s branding, website, videos, articles and travels scream passion and specialty for leather design.  They’ve cultivated a loyal customer following by staying true to their mission.  This is the result of mastering several steps:

  1. Credibility– If you’ve been in your industry a while, it’s safe to say you know the tricks and shortcuts that lead to a lousy end product or service. Educating your customers on these apparent gaps promotes street cred.
  2. Trust – Connect credibility with the product or service need by looking out for your customers’ best interests. Identify ways to save them time, money and hassle.   Ignorance is not bliss; taking advantage of naive consumers will only come back around in the form of negative sentiment.
  3. Quality – Small businesses don’t have the ability to scale like the bigger retailers but can move faster and invest in improving product or service quality output, constantly improving designs, adding new components/enhancements and guaranteeing workmanship. Mass producing dilutes quality, and quality is the backbone for any small business.
  4. Comparison – Show people how you’re different, forget negative selling (as noted earlier) and state what you believe in. Lead with your approach and illustrate differences, whether it’s components, talent, skill, etc. What is the value add and how have you built off of it? Let comparisons be the way you overshadow the competition.

There are some great lessons to learn from Saddleback Leather Co.’s “How to Knock off a Bag” video.  Hopefully this breakdown on differentiation has inspired you to look for ways that you, too, can adjust your approach to effectively connecting with potential customers and strengthening existing relationships.   For the average customer who doesn’t know the ins and outs of your field, it’s all about how you communicate your value in fulfilling their need.  Making customers an integral part of your feedback loop is vital to evolving your business, refining your offering and improving your quality output.