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How to be “Different” – Part 2

Youngmee Moon is the author of Different: Escaping the Competitive Herd

– one of my favorite books of 2010. Youngmee is a professor at the Harvard Business School and author of many world-famous Harvard Business School case studies.

This is the second and final part of our conversation.

Youngmee, you’re saying that just because we can measure a difference doesn’t mean that difference is meaningful to consumers.

Exactly. That’s exactly right. You see that every day in so many categories where marketers and product managers are counting differences that, as a consumer, you shrug and say “so what?”

I guess the book was really an attempt, at that intersection where business people meet real people, to remind business people that the lens by which we view our own categories and our own competitive landscape is actually different than the lens consumers use when they consume within this category.

In that context then, what is a “difference”?

Well, if I were to hold up a particular prototype of “difference” and say “here’s how to do it” and everyone were to do it, then it wouldn’t be different at all anymore. In other words, different is one of those concepts that is completely dependent on the context. It’s like trying to define what the word “opposite” means.

At business school, when you teach best practice, there’s this idea that there is a way to do best practice and your students will learn that way and they’ll go out and execute on it. In marketing, that doesn’t quite work that way because a company can do something that is extraordinary. Yet if every other company would go out and do it as well, it would no longer be extraordinary. And so you can’t teach that there is a certain way to be a great marketer or to come up with a great product because the definition is constantly changing.

But you can teach that, as you put in the book, “extraordinary” is a goal worth having. It’s good to be a brand that makes me sit up and pay attention.

Exactly, and there is a way of thinking about brands and differentiation that can lead you to that level of “extraordinary,” and that’s really the message of the book.

How can we begin to think about the process of differentiation and positioning in competition in a way that actually allows us to create this meaningful growth of differentiation as opposed to feed into this tendency to gravitate towards our competition? It is the same kind of mindset that I try to teach my students, this vigilance, moving in a direction that is opposite to the natural reflex.

One of the takeaways you have towards that end is the idea that brands will be, in your words, intensely human. I find that interesting because it implies that it’s okay to bring more of ourselves to the creation of these brands.

The analytical has a role – and I say that as someone whose job can be quite analytical. But I also recognize that consumers don’t really know what to respond to until we provide them a stimulus which can evoke a response, and I wonder if that kind of “intensely human” future that you see means that we’ll be bringing more of ourselves to our brands and the brands will be inherently not only more interesting and more compelling but more fun to create and consume?

You know the optimist in me really believes that to be the case. I think if you look at the history of marketing and product management in this country, we moved into this very analytical period where we use all of the various tools at our disposal to try to deconstruct the market and to tailor products accordingly. That works in many categories particularly when they’re in a particular stage in their lifecycle, but at a certain point, consumers reach a stage of maturation and savvy beyond which that no longer interests them at all.

The truth of the matter is the most interesting people I know are people who cannot be pigeonholed. They are a bundle of internal contradictions, and that makes them extraordinarily interesting.

I think the same is true for brands. I think the brands that are the most interesting are the ones that feel human to us, and the reason they feel human is they can’t necessarily be reduced using the language and the terminology and the toolset by which we’re used to reducing products and people into segments and components. The brands that I find myself most attracted to are the brands that are not afraid to play with contradiction, not afraid to play with creating paradoxes for consumers, not afraid to play with us a little bit in ways that delight, excite, and interest us.

For an example of that, I’m thinking of Target – high design and low price, right?

That’s a great example. For many years we have had this idea about what a discount store was supposed to look like and supposed to feel like. And then Target comes along, but they start to adopt certain characteristics and we don’t even register them at the rational level, we respond to them emotionally. For example, it’s really one of the first discount stores that pays extraordinary attention to the aesthetics of every single product in the store such that every product adheres to the same aesthetic personality. Even the paper clips. It’s an extraordinary thing because that particular characteristic is something that we would normally only associate with a high end boutique. Discount stores don’t aren’t supposed to behave that way. Target comes along and says no, we’re a discount store but we’re going to have this aesthetic personality, so consumers walk in and don’t necessarily think about it using that language but we respond to it. We think “wow, this somehow doesn’t feel like a discount store,” and we respond to it emotionally in a very positive way.

One of the challenges in building kind of this human-textured multi-level brand is the difficulty of communicating simply to people who have very little bandwidth for new information. This is of course the problem that the concept “positioning” was designed to solve. Where’s the bridge between “positioning” and building the brand of the future?

You know, I think that we have come to this point of media and marketing saturation that it has become harder and harder for the communications piece of our marketing strategy to have an impact. It used to be that you would build something and then you would spend a lot of time asking “how can we tell people about this thing that we built, and how can we get people to buy it, and how can we communicate it to them, and how can we describe it to them whether it’s via radio advertising or television or a billboard or whatever it is?”

I think we have gotten to the point where that kind of communication has really diminished in impact, and so it is more important than ever that the product itself, the service itself, whatever it is that we’re actually offering, that it itself has an impact that creates this emotional response that people are then willing to share with other people.

I get this all the time. I have executives coming to me and they ask how they can design their marketing campaign or advertising campaign in a way to communicate difference? How can they tell people, how can they convince people that they’re different? My response is that the best way to stand out is to actually to be different, and maybe a lot of the energy that you’re putting toward trying to convince people that you’re different should be put toward actually trying to create the difference. Maybe a lot of what you see as difference isn’t actually difference at all.

Thus making the communication problem so difficult in the first place, right?

Exactly. The truth of the matter is if you do create something that is meaningfully different, I mean different not in a trivial way but in a significant way, and it resonates with people, then they will find it.

I mean this is the flip-side of living in a heavily media-saturated society where consumers are so connected with each other that they will find it, they will talk about it. If you managed to do something extraordinary, I do believe that most of the time consumers will help you get the word out to other consumers.

You’re also inadvertently explaining why marketing dollars are moving to the Internet and to social media: Because this puts more reliance on differences inherent in the product and allows the consumers of that product to spread the word, to spread stories, to share whatever information about the product they want, right?

That’s exactly right. The best way to stand out is to actually spend most of your time trying to figure out how to be different, and then the communication piece becomes significantly easier.

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