The term “same same, but different” is a famous expression from Thai English (Tinglishi), which means similar, but different in some ways (Kravanja, 2011). If you have the opportunity to visit South East Asian countries, like Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam, you cannot escape from hearing street vendors loudly proclaiming “same same, but different” in an attempt to convince tourists that their products are different from the next stall.
Like the Thai street vendor, one of the global tourism industry’s main challenges is to develop tourism products1 that are different in some way: Porter (1985), the father of the competitive advantage, defined three main strategies to differentiate a company from its competitors: "Cost Leadership" (no frills), "Differentiation" (creating uniquely desirable products and services) and "Focus" (offering a specialized service in a niche market).
In his Theory of Monopolistic Competition Edward Chamberlin (1962) proposed the concept of differentiation, defined as the process of distinguishing a product or service from others, to make it more attractive to a particular target market respectively target group (Kotler & Keller, 2012). In tourism, product differentiation is a strategy in which tourism companies or destinations attempt to create and exploit differences between their products and those offered by competitors. These differences may lead to competitive advantage if customers perceive the difference and have a preference for it (Yang, 2010).
A differentiation strategy is based on persuading customers that a tourism product or service is superior in some way to that offered by competitors (Evans et al., 2003; Riege & Perry, 2000). To develop competitive products is the inevitable course for tourism companies or destinations to solve the problem of product homogenization and to create tourism products or services, different from the habitual by means of unique consumer benefits, supply, organization and the human resource involved. Therefore, differentiation is directly linked with other terms such as “product development” and “product diversification”.
Ansoff (1965) distinguished a company´s existing products from new products and markets by proposing two product policy strategies: “Product Development” (developing new products or improved versions of an existing product to offer to an existing market) and “Diversification” (entering new markets with new products).
Note that these differentiation strategies (innovation, modification and diversification) are often difficult to distinguish as the transition point from one product or market to another is not clear and they are usually complementary to one another. Most important here is that tourism companies and destinations may only survive in the market if they can demonstrate the unique aspects of their product or service and create a sense of value. The value-added service and fine sentiments service are the embodiment of the “exclusive” element in the market competition. Market demand is changing all the time. Consequently, products should be constantly revitalized to ensure competitiveness and differentiation. Besides this, quality assurance, good marketing practices, and customer and employee satisfaction are among the most important areas or fields for product innovation and differentiation (Yang, 2010).
Ultimately, product differentiation is an attempt to develop an alternative product or service, and at the same time, it is a tribute to a creative thinking. Same same, but different!
1) In the following, “tourism product” is meant in a broader sense that also includes tourism services.