Conventional wisdom among car companies used to be that you couldn’t talk about safety, because doing so might remind customers that you could die while driving. So the industry as a whole talked about anything else: styling details, new colors, faster engines, and so on. Except for one Swedish carmaker. Instead of shying away from safety, Volvo’s founders saw an opportunity to differentiate their start-up from the rest of the pack.
“Cars are driven by people. The guiding principle behind everything we make at Volvo, therefore, is and must remain, safety,” said Assar Gabrielsson and Gustav Larson, at the founding of Volvo in 1927. Volvo didn’t just make cars in a slightly different color or produce somewhat nicer interior leather. They focused on making ultra-safe cars (pioneering three-point seatbelts, for example) and proudly advertised that fact. They massively differentiated themselves by focusing on something no other company did. This made them top choice with consumers who put safety first. Even today—with most manufacturers touting safety—if you ask most any potential car buyer which car stands for safety, you’ll get this answer: “Volvo.”
Volvo achieved differentiation by focusing on one thing no other company did. Every individual profesional — that means you! — needs to do the same. What skill, experience, or connection do you have that no one else has? How can you build that differentiating quality to stand out from other people who compete for similar sorts of opportunities? As an example, learning Portuguese or Spanish in anticipation of the rise of Brazil and Latin America would be a good contrarian career move when the prevailing wisdom on “getting ahead of the curve” is to learn Mandarin.