What Subway and Jimmy John’s Can Teach Any Business Owner About Differentiation Strategy

This article originally appeared in AllBusiness.

As business coaches that work with companies to help them grow, we talk a lot about how to differentiate yourself from your competitors. Sometimes it can be hard to do, and it’s not always about what you deliver as much as how you deliver it.

One of my favorite examples is Subway and Jimmy John’s. These two chains sell largely the same product: Sub sandwiches with fresh ingredients. Seriously, how many ways can you make a sandwich?

First, let us summarize each chain’s strategy: Subway’s “Eat fresh” slogan and Jimmy John’s “Freaky fast” slogan. Subway wants its consumers to know Subway is the healthy option and Jimmy John’s wants its customers to know it is the fastest option.

Overall, they sell essentially the same product and largely the same experience. Neither shop is more luxurious than the other, neither is out to create a particularly memorable experience, and price positioning is only slightly different. So why does Jimmy John’s deliver its orders in an average of 30 seconds (tracked constantly, by the way), and Subway takes nearly 90 seconds to deliver a cold foot long?

How to build a sandwich (chain)

Think about an experience at Subway. You walk in, pick a sandwich, and then the interrogation begins. White or wheat? 6- or 12-inch? Hot or cold? Toppings? You’re building the sandwich from the ground up. All these options take time. Looking at a dozen choices, asking questions, making sure you didn’t miss anything, this adds to my healthy experience, but the process kills speed.

So what does Jimmy John’s do differently? Well, the bedrock of this difference is at “JJ’s,” all the sandwiches come the same way. Lettuce, tomato, onion. When you order the “#4, no tomato,” boom, that’s what you get. You don’t tell them the type of bread or if you want it hot or cold. You don’t even tell them you want turkey—just #4! A different type of bread has a different number. Plus, there is only ONE SIZE: 8-inch. All that adds up. So the key to their speed is the sandwiches all come the same way—you just tell them what to leave off.

It’s this economy of actions that speeds up JJ’s so much. No interrogations, and the sandwich makers don’t have to wait for you to tell them about all the toppings you want. Nor do they have to think about how to build a sandwich because it is always the same process, just sometimes they skip a step or two. The whole thing is designed to limit choices—and this is what speeds it up 3x! (This dedication to speed is also why you’ll never see warm sandwiches at JJ’s.)

This is not a knock on Subway—fast is not their strategy; healthy and fresh is, and I’m sure we could observe some things they do to support this effort.

Stand out from the crowd

Both Subway and Jimmy John’s have created differentiation strategies to sell essentially the same product in their own ways. In a market that is highly saturated—such as sub shops—you need to make yourself stand out in some way. And you need to follow through on that promise. At the end of the day, your customer will wind up with a turkey sandwich. However, the way that product is created and delivered can be drastically different.

So, determine what it is that sets your company apart. That is your value proposition, and as you are documenting or reviewing the key processes in your business, ensure they specifically support your company’s stated differentiation strategy. That way, you are delivering exactly what you say you will with the added bonus of doing it differently than others. Only then will you be on the road to success.