18 minutes | Oct 19th 2020

Standing Out From Your Competition - RD234

How are you standing out from your competition

What do you think of when you hear the word “pencil”?

I bet that one of the images that flashed through your head is of a yellow-painted piece of wood with a graphite center. The quintessential yellow pencil found the world over.

A Medium article by Melissa Gouty titled “Why Pencils Are Painted Yellow" got me thinking about the parallels between a yellow pencil and your design business.

I'm going to paraphrase Melissa's article for the sake of my comparison.

The common yellow pencil that we take for granted helped spark the renaissance. Before the invention of the pencil, quill and ink were the only means of writing, and they were reserved for the elite. The invention of the pencil allowed common people to record knowledge and write whenever and wherever they wanted.

The discovery of graphite was so valuable that the English government guarded it and controlled its distribution. People took to smuggling graphite around the known world, and innovative individuals devised ways to use it for writing.

In 1565, A Swiss man named Conrad Gessner came up with the idea of encasing graphite in wood and the pencil industry was born. This common instrument familiar to every schoolchild, which you probably have strewn around your home, was a valuable commodity back then. To own a pencil made you special.

But like most things, time and wider availability diminished the pencil’s appeal. Over the next 300 years, the thrill of owning a pencil fizzled out. This marvellous invention was no more than a boring piece of brown wood with graphite in the middle, until 1889, that is.

In 1889 the World Fail was held in Paris, France. It attracted more than thirty-two million visitors and showcased exhibitors from around the world.

One exhibitor was an Austrian-Hungarian company by the name of Koh-I-Noor Hardtmuth. They had been in business for over 100 years and were knows for producing high-quality art and drafting supplies, including pencils. But really, how is one pencil better than another?

Koh-I-Noor came up with an idea. You might even say it was one of the first things to go viral.

At that time, the largest diamond known to exist, coincidentally named The Koh-I-Noor Diamond, was about to be inset to the crown of the Queen of England, Elizabeth II.

So the drafting supply company did something nobody had ever done before. Since the name Koh-I-Nor was getting so much publicity, they gave their pencil the same name. They called it the Koor-I-Noor Series 1500.

But naming their pencil wasn’t enough. They had to somehow make their pencil different. That’s when they came up with the idea of painting their pencils yellow. They put a lot of thought and energy into selecting the perfect colour. Settling on their particular shade of yellow for three reasons.

  1. The best graphite, the same they used in their pencils, came from China, and in China, yellow represents prestige and royalty.
  2. The Koh-I-Noor Diamond has yellow flecks in it.
  3. The crowns on the Austria-Hungary flag depicted yellow crowns.

So at the 1889 World Fair in Paris, France, the Koh-I-Noor Hardtmuth art and drafting supply company introduced their new Luxury pencil, the Koh-I-Noor Series 1500.

This "Luxury" version of the common pencil quickly became associated with wealth, power and prestige. Soon, nobody wanted to be seen with a plain brown pencil, and Koh-I-Noor cornered the pencil market, selling a more expensive "Luxury" version of the same product everyone else was offering.

Back then, there was nothing stopping others from following their lead, and soon, pencel manufacturers around the world were painting their pencils yellow as well. But for a short time, one company figured a way to corner the pencil market by making their product more desirable than what their completion was offering.

The Yellow Pencil and Your Design Business

So what does the story of the yellow pencil have to do with running a design business? Think of all the services and products you offer and how similar are they to your competition?

  • You design logos. They design logos
  • You design business cards. They design business cards.
  • You create websites. They create websites.

We are all designers, and to an extent, we all pretty much offer the same thing.

Take a cue from what one company did 140 years ago, and do something different that makes what you offer unique compared to everyone else.

What are you doing to stand out from your competition? How are you offering the same services they do in a manner that will entice clients to chose you over them? I can’t give you the solution, but I can encourage you to pursue your own answer.

Figure out what may work for you. Become the “luxury” option that clients will covet.

How do you stand out from your competition?

Let me know by leaving a comment for this episode.