"…any competitive metric, tends to bring out the herd in us."
If you’ve ever driven on slippery roads, you’ve experienced the natural instinct to turn the wheel too much when the car starts to slide. It’s a basic driver’s education lesson to try to train us to not overcompensate when our reactions are telling us to turn harder. If you don’t learn this lesson early, you may end up in an avoidable accident. Youngme Moon is the ultimate driving instructor, but for our business instincts.
When we see our competitors introduce new features, services, benefits, or pricing, our natural response is to match what they are offering. The logic being that doing the things our competitors do will keep our customers from leaving us for the other guys. The more we learn about our competitors, through market data and analysis, the worse we feel the pressure to copy their moves. In Different, Youngme Moon tells us through stories (mainly based on her own Harvard case studies and personal experience) why that is completely wrong. Instead of matching our competitors, we should do the opposite. But only in certain strategic ways.
Success Comes From Standing Out From The Crowd
"We simply separate the folks who are saying nothing from the folks who are saying something, and the former we dismiss as not being that different at all. As for the latter, these are the ones for whom we reserve our full attention, the ones we hold in genuinely high regard."
When you go shopping at your local grocery store, do you spend much time in the cereal aisle comparing the features and benefits of the options available? Neither do I. If you’re like most of us, we decide which things deserve our attention and we make a choice that lasts for a long time. Product and service companies love that we stick with one choice and don’t explore other options very often.
However, if you want to increase your market share or introduce a new product, you need to figure out a way to push more customers to do that re-evaluation. So you add “new”, “better” and “special” features to “improve” your offering. Over time your competitors match your changes and you match theirs, to the point that the brand category goes from only a few options to many sub-types. Maybe it even gets to the point of oversaturation and confusion.
So instead of differentiating ourselves in the eyes of our customers, we just look more and more like all the others. It’s conformity of the herd at its finest. And it is the exact opposite of what we want to create. So how do we become “different”?
Don't Work On Your Weaknesses; Work On Your Strengths
"A funny thing happens the minute you begin to capture comparative differences on paper: There is a natural inclination for folks in the comparative set to focus on eliminating those differences, rather than accentuating them."
All of us are very good at naturally separating real differences in products and services from ones that are mere platitudes. “Best service”, “we really care”, etc. are nice slogans, but anyone can say them and so they mean nothing. The same thing happens when we try to copy what our competitors offer, whether it is having a points program (who doesn’t offer one of those now?) or adding features (can you imagine a new car without Bluetooth?). In the race to copy each other, we lose our differentiating aspect and then it is a race to the lowest common denominator of price. Being truly “one of a kind” is the surest and only strategy for success.
Resist the natural temptation to work on your competitive weaknesses. If your marketing surveys and focus groups say that they don’t like your return policy, then consider carefully if that is a weakness or a strength. IKEA is a worldwide success, not despite, but because they make you come pick up your furniture and assemble it yourself. They have selection, affordability, and style working for them, so something had to give. Ford Mini’s are tiny cars, and people love them for it. Focus on what you do extremely well and resist the temptation to “fix” those areas where you comparatively fall short.
Individuality Has Its Price And Its Benefits
"…true differentiation—sustainable differentiation—is rarely a function of well-roundedness; it is typically a function of lopsidedness."
There are three major ways to escape the “competitive herd” and differentiate yourself in the market. Each has its own benefits and potential drawbacks, so they need to be chosen carefully.
1) Reversal – Google has an almost barren home page, while all its competitors flash multiple options and choices.
2) Breakaway – Kimberly-Clark (Huggies) created “Pull-Ups” which was seen not as “a diaper” but as “underwear” and doubled their client longevity.
3) Hostility – Birkenstocks are “ugly” and proud of it.
What is it about your company or your personal reputation (your “brand”) that makes it stand out? Do you celebrate what makes you different or are you trying to conform so that you fit average expectations? It takes courage to stand out, but if you don’t take that risk, then you look just like everyone else and you fade into the sameness of the grocery aisle shelves of breakfast cereal.