Everywhere we look there are brands. I sit in Starbucks drinking something fancy and cold, typing on my Apple laptop in some reasonably crazy Top & Derby socks and my choices at some level were all designed to say something about what I value. In theory I value a decently made drink, a nice laptop and funny-looking compression socks. I have chosen those companies because they speak to me in some way. Their branding resonates with the image I want to portray.
While it feels super odd to talk about myself in this way, there is no denying it at an academic level. All of us choose products, at some level, by what they say about us. Sure we wrap up our decisions in lofty sounding ‘pragmatic’ reasons, but those are most often simply justifications.
Now the question really is, how do brands get to resonate with consumers? How do they stand out from the ever maddening crowd? That’s the question that Youngme Moon tries to answer in Different: Escaping the Competitive Herd.
I seek to identify the outliers, the anomalies, the iconoclasts — the players who have rejected well-rehearsed business routines in favor of an approach more adventurous.
Different is broken down into three broad chunks. First, Youngme tells us where she thinks most brands sit currently. Second she walks us through three types of brands that have differentiated themselves. Third she adds a bunch of caveats to her work on brands, mainly revolving around the ever-changing world and how the work is so easily out of date or not completed.
Where are brands now?
The first major section of Different walks us through where brands are now, which is summarized with the word homogenized.
In industry after industry, business professionals have become so practiced in a particular way of doing things that they appear to have forgotten the point of it all — which is to create meaningful and compelling product offerings for people like you and me.
A homogenized market is one that only experts can really tell the differences in. Where most people hear a decent stereo, true audiophiles can hear thousands of nuances of sound and care deeply about which exact setup — down to the furniture in the room — will yield the best sound quality.
…where a connoisseur sees the differences, a novice sees the similarities. Where a connoisseur can discern subtle shades of distinction based on nuanced asymmetries, a novice lacks the necessary filters to canvas, to organize, to sift an assortment in a meaningful way.
Most of the brands around us are like this. While we may consider ourselves a Coke or Pepsi person, the reality is that in proper blind tests few of us can tell the difference between them. When we look at everything now being ‘bigger and better’ with ’20% more’ of some secret ingredient we no longer have the capacity to have any opinion on the products on the shelf.
In their quest to be better than the competition they’ve simply added more features to their core product until they all have the same features. The only difference is that they label them with their own marketingspeak which differs from the terms used by their competition.
On the contrary, as the number of products within a category multiplies, the differences between them start to become increasingly trivial, almost to the point of preposterousness.
In this product world how do brands compete? For consultants who can never pick a niche to market to, how do they compete on anything but price? Simply being able to do anything that their client asks for only says that they are not amazing at anything.
If you were to meet a brain surgeon who also claimed to be a pediatric orthopedist who also claimed to be a specialist in Botox treatments, you’d likely view all of his credentials with skepticism. Why? Because intuitively you understand that excellence on any extreme almost always involves a trade-off.
So in this world where almost no companies are willing to make a trade-off and say they’re excellent at one thing for fear of losing a single dollar, sit consumers. Consumers who are jaded. They don’t believe the crazy messages that companies are trying to push on them because no potato chip will give you great hair and bring cute girls (or boys) flocking to party with you.
Consumers knowing this are significantly less brand loyal today than they have been in decades past and this is a problem for all businesses.
Youngme cites three types of brands that stand out in the competitive landscape of dross most businesses sit in today. They are Reverse Brands, Breakaway Brands, and Hostile Brands.
Some of the biggest brands around now are what the author calls ‘reverse-positioned’ brands. A reverse brand takes all the great things that the competition is pushing and removes them. Their lack of feature is what positions them in the market.
A reverse-positioned brand is a very particular kind of idea brand, one that makes deliberate decisions to defy the augmentation trend in a category in which customers have come to expect augmentation.
One of the most well-known examples, and one that the author uses, is Google. In the midst of companies like Yahoo! building portal pages that had 1 million features on top of search, Google came along with a homepage with nothing on it but the search box. Even now with lots of services available the Google homepage remains firmly focused on search to the exclusion of so many other features.
In business generally and in marketing specifically, there are few greater sins than failing to meet customer expectations. So nothing is likely to raise eyebrows more quickly than a decision to strip away benefits that consumers expect to receive. This is what he concept of reversal goes against every instinct a businessperson has. When the entire category is racing north, it is no trivial matter to point yourself due south.
But you can’t just stop and be a ‘stripped down’ budget version of the competition. There are plenty of hotels like that, and few of us would stay in them because they don’t offer things like sheets that meet our expectations of cleanliness. The point is to strip away the things that don’t truly matter to customer satisfaction so that you can focus exclusively on the very few things that do matter.
Google did this when their homepage cut all the crappy advertising that the rest of the industry had around their homepage. That inverted the expectations of customers that a ‘free’ service simply had the right to plaster ads all over everything.
In business, it is easy to fall into the habit of thinking that the way to be better is to simply do more.
I’d add to this that it’s easy to fall into the trap of offering to do more, or the same job for less. This is especially true with consultants starting out in the business as they easily fall into the trap of wondering if the current client will be their last client ever. It seems odd to read, but at some point all of us (yup me too) fall into that mindset that if we don’t land this project no one ever will feel that we’re worthy of any money for our chosen craft ever again.
A reverse-positioned firm is one that refuses to get on the augmentation treadmill, not because it doesn’t care about its customers, but because it is operating under an inverse assumption—that given the hyper-maturity of the category, there are probably lots of folks who are over-satisfied, i.e., who are being given inflated sets of benefits they don’t necessarily care about.
breakaway brands recognize that when it comes to consumption, our classifications tend to be both superficial and arbitrary.
Youngme starts this section with a question about robots. What if you had a robot to be your helper? Most of us would essentially build a custom household servant so laundry would get folded and dinner would get made. The problem is that no matter how much technology we put into it, we’re going to get something that’s buggy. This is where the Sony AIBO comes in, which is a $2000 ‘pet’ robot dog. When this dog doesn’t listen or does the opposite of what we ask we don’t expect it to be our robot butler. Because we’ve reframed it into a dog we let these defects off as personality quirks.
Reframing is so powerful most of us eat cookies for breakfast. Don’t believe me? Then check out my favourite quote in the book.
Cereal is cereal because it happens to be food broken down into spoon-sized bits; if the pieces were any larger, we’d have to call them cookies.
Think about the nutritional content of most cereal, which is little better than the chocolate chip cookie and while most of us will agree that eating cookies for breakfast is not good for your health we will happily eat cereal every morning.
By presenting us with an alternative frame of reference, they encourage us to let go of the consumption posture we’re inclined to bring to a product and embrace entirely new terms of engagement instead.
What are ‘pull-ups’ but diapers without Velcro? With this masterful reframing, diaper manufacturers reduced the stigma of having kids over two in diapers and extended the life of their product for years with kids and parents.
Cirque du Soleil did this as they reframed the circus from involving animals to amazing acrobatic and physical feats by humans. I’d never think of taking my wife on a date to a traditional circus and yet we’ve been to a number of Cirque performances and very much enjoyed each one.
One would think that getting your products to your customers when and how they want the products is what business is about. Not so for hostile brands.
Hostile brands are brands that play hard to get. Instead of laying down the welcome mat, they lay down the gauntlet.
Look at the advertising campaign of the Mini Cooper. It was a car much smaller than pretty much anything in North America at the time. Instead of minimizing that disadvantage the marketing campaign focused on it being even smaller than you thought.
In many ways Apple does this with the iPhone. There are only three models available currently, and that’s many more than there have been in years past. If you wanted on with touch-to-pay options in years past you were simply out of luck and they weren’t ashamed of it.
…hostile brands create divisions, but they create a magical kind of solidarity, too.
When Apple was a fringe brand that only enthusiasts were interested in, you could see someone with an Apple computer out and about and know that you had a kindred spirit.
CrossFit people feel this when they say that their warmup is everyone else’s workout. They tell you that if you thought working out was hard, well that was just the warmup. Sure you can do it, but it’s going to be harder than you thought it was going to be. Out of that comes the jokes about people that do CrossFit telling you every 10 seconds they do CrossFit, until you finally get away from them.
Hostile brands done right build immensely loyal consumers that are going to work to sell your brand for you as they tell everyone how awesome the brand is.
Some caveats by the author
The final section of the book is all about the caveats that the author feels she needs to make. Stuff like these three brand types are not the only ones out there and that many brands that fit into one category also fit into the other two at times.
All brands are a mix of the three in some fashion.
In my view this weakens the writing. Of course this is Youngme’s opinion, it’s her book. Clearly covering every type of brand would take more than a lifetime and even as you finished you’d find another rabbit hole to go down as you try to categorize a new brand. As she says in this section:
if all of us only dared to ever speak or write or put forth the things we knew to be unassailable, then we really wouldn’t have much of interest to contribute at all.
So why a whole section to ‘caveat’ the work?
Despite the flaw I see at the end I think there are a number of great takeaways for consultants and business owners.
First off is start to incorporate some of these traits of ‘winning’ brands. I already incorporate part of the hostile brand as I only take phone calls on Tuesdays and only inside a two-hour window. If that doesn’t work for you, you should find someone else to work with.
Another key inside this writing is that if you can pick a niche you can then market to it. Marketing your services to writers lets you build the brand that aspiring writers want to be a part of as they work to build a business writing.
By having this niche and focusing your marketing on that niche you can use these techniques of ‘hostility’ or to reframe the benefits that people get with your services effectively. When you can be everything to anyone, you’re in the game of augmentation that Youngme laments as breaking down the value that organizations offer.
Don’t get on the augmentation treadmill.
The purpose of the book was to identify the outliers in the branding space. To show you those that take an adventurous path and succeed at it. In that I think the book succeeded. It did show us adventurous brands and the author did provide some good takeaways so that we can learn how these brands position themselves in the market. With that knowledge in hand we can make some changes in how we market our businesses.
Now is it worth your time to read? I’m not so sure about that. It was mildly interesting to me, and there are a few takeaways, but I have a feeling that there are better books out there for those that are in the trenches and need to build a brand now that resonates. If you enjoy reading academically about brands, then this a good book to enhance your understanding of ways that brands operate.
Get Different: Escaping the Competitive Herd on Amazon