Getting a Grip on Product Differentiation

Creating unique design assets to compete in a crowded “me too” market

A strong design can make the difference for a product or service, elevating it beyond commodity offerings in industries with crowded fields of competition. Design can be used to enhance a company’s product in ways that make it difficult for the numerous copycats and me-too businesses to take advantage, even if the product itself does not disrupt the marketplace. The pace of new development in some mature industries may be somewhat slow, but it shouldn’t be further hampered by lack of consideration for design. Take a look at this online catalog from a major foodservice supplier:

A sample of basic chef knife offerings from Katom Restaurant Supply

A sample of basic chef knife offerings from Katom Restaurant Supply


This sea of sameness prevents buyers from evaluating a product based on its features or merits. Cost becomes the sole differentiator when other desirable features are lost in the background noise of a saturated market.

How would design play a role in this space? In order for the product to be successful, one of two things must occur. Firstly, the buyer must notice a desirable difference in it while shopping. Alternatively, the end-user must be brand-aware, and demand that specific product from the buyer.

When we take on a project with a client, we put a great deal of thought into finding the combination of branding, design, aesthetics, and user benefits that will make their product stand out in the market. We also think about how we can create intellectual property (IP) whenever possible and incorporate difficult-to-copy design features that offer the best protection from encroachment by commodity products. For example, when designing professional cutlery client Dexter Russell’s V-Lo line of knives, this meant creating a lightweight comfortable handle with a recognizable visual profile, and something that could not be copied by the competition: the design of the slip-proof elastomer grip texture.

A closeup of the molded elastomer textured surface on a V-Lo knife

A closeup of the molded elastomer textured surface on a V-Lo knife


This unique grip texture - now one of Dexter’s essential design assets and a valuable piece of their IP - came into being as the solution to a key problem: improving the handle grip in wet or greasy conditions or when gripped with gloves. Its importance was paramount to the end user, and we saw an opportunity to turn it into something more powerful for Dexter than just another feature. The design we created is challenging for competitors to copy, because it is difficult for current software to map it on a surface using only its dimensional specifications. It also cannot be applied to the surface of an injection molding tool using an etching process. For Dexter Russell, these production limitations are of minimal concern, because we have helped the company develop a proprietary internal procedure for implementing the texture effectively.

Alan Peppel, CEO of Dexter Russell, says, “For us, V-Lo allows another over-molded offering above the rest of the market. The texture is slip resistant, grippy, and still comfortable. We were able to get the texture trademarked. This gives us more distinction in the marketplace.” V-Lo continues to grow in sales as more and more customers adopt them as permanent replacements for other knives.

Dexter Russell is the largest manufacturer of professional cutlery in the US and they are known for excellence in materials, workmanship, and blade quality. However, as an American manufacturing company competing in a market rife with cheap imports and knockoffs, Dexter must continually work to entice their customers and differentiate themselves from the competition. Well-planned design enables them to keep ahead of that curve. Design can improve the adoption of a product or service, but strategically, design can also become a permanent asset to a company. Even in mature markets, good design has an essential place in differentiating your company from the competition.

Carol Catalano