From a functional (how to cook different yummy things) perspective, most if not all TV cooking programmes are much and much the same. There is (out of necessity) a fairly small range of ingredients, flavourings and methods. The philosophies don’t seem to vary that much either: use the freshest ingredients, use local ingredients, use fashionably-branded ingredients (sometimes), keep dishes simple, and slathering everything in fat.

Some differentiation comes from the format. Travelling chefs seem to be popular at the moment. Fast meals. Slow meals. Traditional meals. Different (but still high-street familiar) cuisines. Beautiful (similar) photography and books. Even the recipes don’t vary all that greatly. These are but material or functional differences – any competent chef can conceivably work with any of these differentiation techniques and formats.

(An interesting but still material differentiation technique is the use of extreme situations – Cooking in the Danger Zone and extreme ingredients.)

The real, deep differentiation is from the personality of the chefs themselves. This is the differentiation that leads to the real emotional bond between audience and chef. Some people will absolutely adore one chef, while others will hate him or her. They keep a chef in the spotlight.

Out of the personalities of these chefs come emotive differentiators like social causes like Jamie Oliver’s drive to reform School Dinners, and his more recent Ministry Of Food. Another example is Gordon Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares where he tries to rejuvenate flagging restaurants.
If we think of small businesses as TV cooking programmes, and their owners as the celebrity chefs, we can apply the same way of looking at differentiation.

From a functional viewpoint, all graphic designers offer more or less the same service. Likewise all accountants, lawyers, and dentists. All can claim to be professional, and ethical, and specialised. And all are minimally differentiated thus.

It is only when business owners reach inside and start expressing their personalities, that the option for deep differentiation become available for play.

I say small businesses because it is way easier for the personality of the owners to shine through. Any change (from the owners) will show up much faster and without much dilution. These lessons are applicable to larger businesses as well. But their layers of committees and often shallow branding personae will dilute and muddy up any personality-driven differentiation changes from the top.