Every once in a while, I read, hear or see something that stops me, grabs me and pulls me in, simply because it’s somehow different. And once in an even greater while, that something is so good I’m struck with creative envy, wishing I was the creator of that something. Such is the case with Youngme Moon’s (aptly titled) book Different: Escaping the Competitive Herd.
Youngme Moon teaches one of the most popular courses at Harvard Business School, but Different is less a business book than it is a thoughtful meditation on what it means to be truly different, using business brands that are a breed apart as the lens of discovery.
Using prose that I found both engaging and eloquent, Youngme begins with the simple premise that there’s an erosion of meaningful consumer value due to an “overwhelming profusion of options emanating out of hyper-mature categories.”
What does she mean by that? Instead of a boring business answer, she talks about the typical arc of a hit television series: it starts off strong, gets stronger over the next few years, and then peaks before an inevitable decline, often triggered by something the audience ultimately rejects. She tells the story of Happy Days, citing the death knell episode featuring the improbable scene of Fonzie waterskiing and having to jump over a shark.
The point is, in business, she says, there’s a similar arc:
“As categories mature, the products within them get progressively better over time, with consumers benefiting along the way. But somewhere along the line these categories jump the shark, having undergone too many plot twists and turns for consumers to stomach anymore.”
So what are we to do about it? Can we hope to avoid the downward spiral? Youngme subtly offers two key handrails that anyone in business can grab on to if they’re interested in differentiating their offerings staying relevant. (And really, who isn't?)
First, she offers five categories that respond to the central dilemma of “product fatigue and cynicism,” and that cover “most of the ways that people cope with hyper-mature markets.” (Note: even if a market isn't quite hyper-mature, just wait a couple of months.)
- Connoisseurs love your product category and know it cold. They are experts, mavens, enthusiasts, yet brand-agnostic. They are selective, discriminating, informed, and picky.
- Savvy opportunists are equally knowledgeable and brand-agnostic, but without the category love. They are deal-driven cynics and switch-happy bargain hunters, rewards points collectors, and coupon clippers.
- Pragmatics have surrendered to choice overload to the point that they’re skeptical of the touted brand differences. In the extreme, they are indifferent—numb, even—to the whole category.
- Reluctants would prefer to not have to even deal with a given product category if they didn’t have to. Reluctants “are eager to exit the market as quickly as possible.”
- Brand loyalists “...are the folks who, despite the number of competitive alternatives in the market, still exhibit a stubborn passion for a particular brand.”
She then goes on to say that, “The brands that make me sit up and pay attention are exactly these: brands that are able to entice people out of their entrenched consumption patterns. Brands that are able to make pragmatics and indifferents want to go the extra mile to buy their brand. Brands that are able to turn reluctants into enthusiasts, opportunists into loyalists.”
And so the big question revolves around just how to do that. That’s where the second handrail comes in, in the form of stories about what Youngme terms “idea brands,” revealing three key strategies.
1. Reversal. These are lopsided, as opposed to well-rounded, brands that “...eliminate, but they also elevate. They strip things down, even as they sweeten things up. Reverse brands put their peers on the defensive by forcing them to reevaluate the rationality of their own value propositions. Reverse brands create a kind of tilt... applying pressure in exactly the place where we least expect it.” (Examples: Nintendo Wii, JetBlue, Google, IKEA, In-N-Out Burger)
2. Breakaway. These are brands that reset our mind, give us an alternative frame of reference, recategorize and redefine familiar things, and as Youngme writes, say to consumers “I know you’re inclined to think of this as a slice of SWISS CHEESE, but what if you were to think of it as a FLYING CARPET instead?” Breakaway brands are a half-step away from being in their own category, but bill themselves as the extremist, the boundary breaker in an established field. (Examples: Swatch, Cirque du Soleil, Kimberly-Clark Pull-Ups, The Simpsons)
3. Hostility. Yes, you read that right! These are the velvet-roped, exclusive brands that play aloof and hard to get. “Instead of laying down the welcome mat, they lay down a gauntlet. Hostile brands present us with their product, warts and all, and if we don’t like it, tough.” Hostile brands don't market, they anti-market. It’s a twisted seduction—old-schoolers may call it arrogance, but new-schoolers call it cool. Think: The Soup Nazi on Seinfeld. (Examples: MINI Cooper, Red Bull, Birkenstock, Hollister)
“Instead of emerging out of anything as tangible as traditional market research,” Youngme writes, “these brands emerged from something much less certain—the insight that it is possible to do things in an exceedingly distinct way.”
Different is, well, different. It’s intensely personal. Rarely does the reader of a business book come away with a sense of somehow knowing the author, including the author’s friends, family, and feelings. In fact, I’m quite sure I had never experienced that, until I read Different. The reason is that it’s risky for a business author. But that’s what is so refreshing about what Youngme Moon does—instead of just advocating taking a risk to be different, she actually takes it.
And it works. In a profoundly beautiful and elegant way.
Matthew E. May is a design and innovation strategist, and the author of In Pursuit of Elegance: Why the Best Ideas Have Something Missing. You can follow him on Twitter @matthewemay.