Youngmee Moon is the author of Different: Escaping the Competitive Herd – a book that is one of my favorites of 2010. Youngmee is a professor at the Harvard Business School and author of many world-famous Harvard Business School case studies.
This is a truly enlightening conversation, and you can catch the whole think via this audiocast. Today I will share the first of our two-part conversation in edited form.
Listen to our entire conversation here (it’s worth it) – or subscribe to all the Mark Ramsey Media podcasts at iTunes.
Youngmee, when we set up this conversation, you suggested that instead of me asking you all the questions, you would like to ask me about your book. So ask away.
Can I ask anything?
Okay, I’m assuming you read dozens of business books a year.
Why did you choose this one to talk about today?
That’s a great question because honestly, this is one of the few books that I actually found in a bookstore since I do most of my acquisition online. So the title of course stood out, but what was interesting about the book was that the cover was actually not different at all, and I found something oddly appealing in the idea that here’s this simple, elegant title – Different – on a book that looked otherwise nondescript.
You know I have to confess that I had numerous discussions of my publisher about this and it was really important to me to not oversell the book or to present it in any way as gimmicky. We actually debated on a number of different kinds of covers for the book, and at the end of the day I said what I would actually prefer is a very quiet cover, a very subtle one that didn’t try to do too much of anything. If people happen to pick it up and enjoy it, fabulous. But let’s not push it down people’s throats.
Yeah, publishers love that kind of talk I’m sure, right?
Having said that, you started out by saying you did end up finding the book to be different and so I guess my question would be: In what ways did you find it different?
I think so many marketing books are recipe books, really. They’re cookbooks. This is not a cookbook. This is more of a book-length thought-starter. Ultimately, just as strategy precedes tactics, the way you think about a problem has to precede the way you tackle that problem. And if you think the wrong thoughts up front, then your tactics are going to be directed towards the wrong goal on the back.
I’ll give you an example. I often have the conversation with broadcast clients about what it means to be “radio” nowadays. Is radio on the decline? Does radio have tremendous new opportunities available to it? My contention is that the answer depends on how you define “radio” in all its shapes, sizes, forms, content threads, and relationships. And if you define “radio” differently, suddenly all these tremendous new opportunities arise. If you define radio the way we did in 1985, it looks to be a shrinking universe.
Interesting. So part of the value of the book for you was laying out the landscape, setting a context in which we talk about marketing and positioning and differentiation that changed the way you thought about it?
That’s right. I mean your book boldly promises no final answers and abjectly introduces the questions and then proceeds to discuss those questions but acknowledges that, like any good scientific paper, more research is required. How many times have we seen that?
One of the things that was really important to me when I was writing the book was capturing a particular tone that I felt was lacking in many business books and the kind of tone that I try to carry into the classroom with me when I teach. It’s a tone that I like to characterize as being more humanistic, more open-ended, a little bit less sure of yourself than you would see in a typical business book.
I guess part of the challenge in writing the book was to execute that tone but at the same time give the reader a sense of confidence that despite the lack of clear-cut answers the author is someone who has actually thought quite deeply about these things and still has some value to offer.
You didn’t write this exactly, but it seems to me one of the themes of the book is that part of what makes a brand different is an openness to serendipity, the idea that something wonderful can happen unexpectedly if you’re open to it.
Yes, I think that’s exactly right, and so that thought was inspired by the book?
Absolutely. Also you make the point abundantly clear that chasing competition by measuring our brand against that competition can move us into a herd rather than make us different. I do a lot of research, and I’m always looking for differences between competitors – strengths and weaknesses. I’m not looking to mirror competitors but I can easily see how research (or the lack of it) could do exactly that.
Yeah. You know it’s a phenomenon that I kept seeing over and over again when I would visit companies. This extremely well intentioned customer-focused company who would monitor their competitors and solicit lots and lots of customer feedback and yet the end result of that was somewhat self-defeating. That was a paradox that I tried to deconstruct in the book about how in fact our competitive vigilance and our vigilance with respect to customer feedback can at times becomes self defeating.
Well, what you’re talking about is the practice of competitive benchmarking and, more specifically, the practice of viewing gaps between my brand and a competing brand as a problem to be solved rather than an opportunity to exploit, right?
Exactly. And it struck me as I was writing and thinking about the book that the best companies are at heart deeply insecure. They’re the ones that are lacking in complacency and so…
Always striving, right?
Absolutely, and that’s in many ways a good thing because it is a guard against complacency. But on the other hand, when you see any kind of gap between you and your competitor, that same kind of insecurity tends to breed this inclination to close the gap. But if you keep trying to close the gap in every way any time a gap opens up between you and your competitor, the end result of that is you become very similar to your competitors. Again, that’s an example of a very well intentioned reflex I think that can become ultimately self-defeating.
The way you phrase that in your book is “competition cultivates conformity,” and then you have another sentence, which I just loved: You said “differentiation is rarely a function of well-roundedness; it’s a function of lopsidedness.”
Yes, that’s right. Although we teach in our business schools the idea that you cannot be all things to all people (and as business people we know that and we try to live that, we try to practice that). the truth of the matter is once you start to develop benchmarks for things, you start to try to measure everything and there are some metrics along which you’re going to, by definition, fall behind, yet there is always this reflex or tendency to try to improve along any dimension where you find yourself below par.
The end result is that you end up trying to be very well rounded, trying to be very good at everything that you measure. And if you have several companies that are doing that, what you end up with is a bunch of companies that are trying to be well-rounded when in fact the most highly differentiated companies are those that are extremely lopsided in terms of their performance on various matters.
It’s interesting to note that everyone’s favorite example, Apple, is constantly chided for deliberately leaving certain things out, no matter what the competition offers.
Exactly. Yes, exactly. Apple, which is one of the most defiantly lopsided companies around and it really has to be. You know how I was talking earlier that the most well-intentioned companies tend to be deeply insecure? It’s also true that the most lopsided companies tend, at least on the face of it, to appear to be the most arrogant. I think Apple is a great example of a company that can sometimes come across as extraordinarily, breathtakingly arrogant, and yet it is highly differentiated.
You talk about the measures that compare companies to each other within an industry. In radio, of course, we’re subject to the ultimate measure – the ratings one. And everyone doesn’t just want good ratings, everyone wants ratings in the same big-money demo, Persons 25 to 54, and everyone wants to be top-five ranked in that demo.
It’s the same trap I think that universities fall into when they try to be number one at the top of the US News ranking. It’s how…
Well, that’s easy for the Harvard professor to say.
But I see it even at our institution where there is this enormous pressure to compete along a set of agreed-upon metrics. And that makes it really difficult to be an outlier, to be a non-conformist. I’m sure you experience that in your industry as well.
It’s extraordinarily difficult, yeah. I think one of questions surrounding differentiation that you take up in the book (and I’ll paraphrase) is that real people don’t see differences the way the engineers of those differences see them. Thus in many categories, as you argue, differentiation is a myth – and you use the phrase ‘the search for meaningful grooves of separation,’ which I think is so colorful. I love it.
Well, I liken it to a wine connoisseur. You can walk into a wine store, and the wine connoisseur – because he’s a connoisseur – can really discern the differences between all of these varieties of wine. I think people who have worked in an industry for a long time become connoisseurs of their own industry, and so if you were to ask them “are you differentiated from your competitors?” they would say “absolutely” and they could name a whole bunch of differences just like the wine connoisseur did.
On the other hand, if you get people who are not the connoisseur – typical, average consumers who doesn’t spend every waking moment thinking about those differences – those consumers don’t see the differences at all and it’s just one big blurry mess of sameness.
That’s really the point that I was trying to make there, that marketers and business people talk the talk of differentiation because they honestly and earnestly do see that differentiation simply because they’re looking at it through different eyes than the typical consumer.