Your radio station needs to ZAG – an interview with author Marty Neumeier

Marty Neumeier is president of Neutron LLC, a San Francisco-based firm specializing in brand collaboration. He’s also the author of a handy and terrific book called Zag: The Number One Strategy of High Performance Brands.

If winning is your goal, does your radio station need to Zag? Marty thinks so, as he says in this edited version of our conversation. For the full 20-minute interview click the “play” button below, or download the mp3 file.


What is a Zag and why do we need to do it, Marty?

All of us are facing a super-cluttered market and a world that’s moving faster than ever. Innovation is leapfrogging all the time. So in order to keep up with that, in order to win in that environment, you have to not only differentiate yourself, you have to radically differentiate yourself. So I called that a Zag, a radical differentiation.

If you look like everybody else, if you’re a me-too brand or a me-too product or service, you don’t matter. This is really the point. How do you matter to your audience? What makes you different and compelling?

That sounds like the basics of positioning and branding. How are you taking that to a new, deeper, more edgy level?


And when they really confront what it takes to be very different, extremely different, they get nervous about that. What’s gonna happen to their business?! You know, why should I do something that nobody else is doing?! Isn’t that risky?! Because that’s the traditional way to look at business. If nobody’s doing it, I’d be crazy to do it. And I say if nobody’s doing it, it might be brilliant to do it. But how do you make your company safely innovative?

What you’re looking for is “white space.” Where can I go where no one else is so that I really stand out from the crowd? Even if the audience is narrow, it may be very deep for you. It may be an audience that you can create a lot of loyalty with.

If I’m a radio station and I’m committed to be dramatically different the way you say, how do I go about building a Zag? Where do I start?

Well, we like to start by looking at the brandscape. In other words, who do you and your customers consider to be your competition? Make a list of those. And then make a grid. On the left side you would write your competitors and across the top you would write the key features that drive your success or the success of this category. And you will see how strong each competitor is in each of those areas, and you’ll see where the white space is.

So the big question is where people are not competing. What are they not doing, not doing very well, or not doing very much of? Further, what are the players in this category not doing at all because they haven’t even imagined they could do it? Or what are they doing so much now that if we did the opposite, we would create a whole new category of success?

You need to explore what’s missing in the brandscape, what you have a passion for, and what you’re willing to take a risk on. Exaggerate those and stop competing in the areas where the competition is too intense.

Okay, I see a couple of the difficulties. One is that the white space is where the risk is at its maximum. And the other is that what’s popular and what’s different can be very difficult to find. How do you deal with these two problems?

You want to be different and good, because that’s where you’re going to create new market space that didn’t exist before and has a nice long run before anybody copies you.

There are lots of examples of this in different fields. In TV, All in the Family created a lot of white space. Just a whole different look and feel and attitude at the time. In cars, the Prius I just bought was good and different and people looked at it and said, “Well, that’s a really weird looking car.” But I guess, you know, it might be okay, since you get 50 miles to the gallon.

Or the Aeron chair, which everyone thought was really bizarre when it came out, yet at one point 30 percent of its manufacturer’s revenue came from that single product.

So all these kinds of products started out baffling people and getting very strange feedback, but they also were perceived as having some value. And so that creates a kind of recognizable pattern that you look for when you’re trying to find that white space.

When you expose people to a prototype of your product, what you’re looking for is a response like: “That’s weird or different. Hmm, I don’t know if I agree with that. I don’t know if I would buy that, but I certainly see the value in it.”

When you get those two things together – different and good – that’s when you start to think you may have a home run, and then you need to figure out how to de-risk it. And one way is to start small. Invest in little tests so you’re not fooling yourself into thinking it’s a winner when it’s really a loser.

In radio we’re dealing with multimillion dollar stations and obligations to owners and Wall Street and so on, and when you flip a format, you’re making a wholesale switch where the risk is huge. But could we perhaps conduct these experiments online?

Yes, maybe try it online. Maybe start a brand, a separate brand, that won’t affect your main brand if it fails. And if it looks like a success, then switch over. Often what happens is the big successes won’t come from these large brands and large companies. They’ll come from the small ones who have nothing to lose and will do anything to leap ahead of you. So the market is always moving faster than any one company. That’s the danger.

What’s really risky to stay the same. So you need to keep up with the speed of the market, and to do that you must think out of the box, try little experiments on the side, perhaps. You don’t have to spend a lot of money, but you need to prototype your ideas, build up a small audience to the point where you see it could grow. If it looks like you’re going to ride a trend, so much the better.

And then you flip the switch. For long-running and established radio brands, how do you strike that critical balance between novelty and consistency? Especially when a station is doing well today by not changing?

One thing I’ve observed is that long-running brands tend to do best right before they go under. Companies sometimes get so good at what they’re good that, they forget why they got in business in the first place, which was to innovate.

And so they get this sort of cultural lock-in where they just can’t change because those processes are just so ingrained, and there’s nobody in the company who really wants to change, so they don’t. And eventually they just go through that sunset effect – out they go and something fresh takes over.

You need to look for ways to stay young so you don’t face that sunset prematurely. Don’t be rigid.

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