If you have ever wanted to stand out from the crowd and create a competitive edge, no doubt a well-meaning friend or adviser may have said: “Be different!”

While being different may be useful advice for some, in terms of reputation branding, it’s not necessarily a smart strategy to follow.

Novelty and innovation can set you apart, attract attention and make you memorable — for a while. The downside of this is that being different, and straying too far from accepted norms, can raise doubts in the minds of those you most want to influence.

Being different can be risky. Questions will be raised about your ability to deliver, whether you might be a good “fit” and even the fleeting thought that by taking a punt on you, the person recommending you will be putting his reputation on the line. And he will probably want to be sure his own reputation isn’t at risk.

Being distinctive, on the other hand, can make you memorable for all the right reasons. Being distinctive can help you differentiate yourself from your competitors and others around you, and give you a compelling edge if whatever it is that makes you distinctive is viewed positively.

If the distinction is not viewed positively, it can leave you being perceived as odd, strange or risky. Inappropriate differentiation can raise doubts in the minds of others that can be hard to counter or overcome.

So how can you create a positively distinctive edge without being riskily different?

Highlight subtleties

Draw attention to a subtle point of difference that others in a similar situation to you don’t necessarily highlight or focus on.  For example, when applying for a job or promotion, or pitching for a new account or business, providing written testimonials from happy clients and colleagues could add huge value to the information you provide directly.

What other people say about you is eight times more powerful than what you say about yourself, and yet few people offer references or testimonials up-front — most wait to be asked to provide them.

Do sweat the small stuff!

Author Richard Carlson’s book urged readers to “Don’t Sweat The Small Stuff”. However, sweating the small stuff is hugely important from a reputation branding perspective.

Do take time to think about details that could either help or harm your reputation from someone else’s perspective. Aim to ensure you leave people feeling valued and respected when they deal with you by caring about the details.

Ensure, too, that whatever promises you make explicitly, or imply, live up to expectations and are consistent with what people expect when dealing with you.

Create meaning from the difference

It is all very well being distinctive or different, but what does it mean to the person you are dealing with? Being able to spell out the benefits to them is essential in terms of them viewing you favourably.

You’re probably not the only person who may have spent a year in Outer Mongolia, but you may be one of relatively few able to articulate that doing so has given you a greater awareness and understanding of working with people with a different view of life in practical ways and how this has made you a better “people-person” as a result. The fact that you can demonstrate how and why something makes you distinctive — and why it is a plus — will be viewed positively.

Adopt a philosophy of “Best-Plus”

Be committed, not only to being the best at what you do, but also to identifying and delivering extras — “pluses” over and above what is expected of you — that will help you be perceived as innovative, and people and client-focused.

These are often right under your nose if you open yourself up to noticing them, such as sending a handwritten “thank you” card to a prospective employer or client following a meeting or sending them a website link simply because you noticed something they may be interested in.

Small, but subtle, actions and words can really set you apart and create a memorable impression that will stand you in good stead years down the line.

Of course, being distinctive attracts attention, so be prepared for others to copy you. Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but ongoing effort is required to remain positively distinctive, as is a willingness to push the boundaries within acceptable levels.

Sun Tzu’s famous treatise, The Art Of War, notes how opportunities come from the openings caused by the relative weaknesses of others in any given area: “If you know both yourself and your enemy, you can win a hundred battles without a single loss.”

Articulate what makes you distinctive and you will have more ammunition in your armoury to enhance your reputation.