Is trying to be ‘different’ actually killing your brand?

We all know that getting mired in category competition can weigh a brand down. Hand-to-hand combat with a competitor is massively expensive — just look at the Cola Wars — and distracting from things like innovation and brand building. So why is it so many marketers (me included) so often end up in a competitive spiral within our category or industry?

You’ve probably been there before: Fighting for space in a commoditized category and trying to escape a sea of sameness. So you conduct a competitive category audit. Then a consumer survey on the category and create a perceptual map to identify white space — an open lane where your brand can stand apart. You find one, then you activate the hell out of it. 

There’s just one problem: too often, the harder we compete within our category’s existing parameters, the more we end up seeming LIKE our competitors rather than different. 

Despite all the work and seemingly sound strategy, you don’t stand out. 

Think of the last time you went to the toothpaste aisle in a drugstore. It’s a ruthlessly competitive category with manufacturers constantly trying to finder ever more nuanced ways to make their products different from the others. If you’re a dentist, perhaps you can discern the differences between the literally dozens of varieties on offer. But if you’re just a regular consumer like me – it looks like a whole bunch of products I can’t tell apart. Chances are I’ll find a brand name I know and then shop on price – or worse pick at random. The brands are competing as hard as they can, trying their best to one-up each other, yet these differences end up making them all a blur. This is how categories become commoditized. 

Harvard Business School professor Sungme Moon makes this point in her book “Different,” calling the phenomenon “heterogeneous homogeneity” and these unlucky competitors “dissimilar clones.”

Bottom line, when we compete on the same category parameters as our direct competitors, the best we can hope for is to become a somewhat different version of them. 

Luxury cars for years took turns trying to out-do each other on the same set of competitive drivers. If one added a safety feature, another one added one that was better. If BMW upped the technology inside the vehicle, Cadillac was sure to counter-punch with its own version. This continued over the past few years to the point that several brands in the luxury space – think Lincoln, Acura, Cadillac, Lexus – were becoming commoditized. The differences between the brands were simply getting smaller and smaller.

Then along came Tesla. It didn’t fit on a traditional luxury car positioning map because it was playing by a different set of rules. It combined being a performance vehicle with being eco-friendly. It was seen as visionary – opening up a whole new way to think about a vehicle. It appealed to a consumer that supposedly didn’t exist: the performance car seeker who’s also looking for an electric vehicle. Even if Tesla never sold another vehicle again, it has forever changed the luxury car category by making all the others seem traditional, inside the box thinkers who resemble each other more than they do Tesla.

You may be thinking: Yeah, well, not everyone can be Tesla. But you can stand out in a crowded marketplace. Here are three proven ways:

Compete in culture 

Aligning with an idea on the rise in culture can give your brand a different canvas on which to compete. Swatch competes as a fashion accessory rather than as a watch brand. It seems like a different species when compared with Timex or Citizen. 

Compete on a societal level 

Joining in to take on societal issues is an increasingly popular way to escape the competitive herd. Patagonia takes on political issues regarding protecting the environment in an era in which the government is seen as too inept to find answers. It sells roughly the same items as Columbia Sportswear or The North Face. But is seen as radically different from these two as a brand. 

I’m not talking about social responsibility, which often is lumped into charitable giving. Everyone talks about CSR these days. But making societal issues part of your business — and Patagonia is best-in-class on this — becomes a competitive weapon.

Compete in “life”

Sometimes the arena in which to be different is your customers’ everyday experience. Starbucks is today one of many coffee houses you can choose — from Intelligentsia to Pete’s to Caribou and beyond. Yet the Starbucks brand stands apart because it long ago carved out a singular role for itself in people's lives: to be a ‘pause button’ for your day, a third-place that’s an oasis in the urban jungle. 

Bear in mind I’m NOT saying category competition isn’t important. Of course, we need to be on top of what our competitors are doing. And ultimately, being different from your direct competitors is a great outcome. But doing only that can make us a captive to category competition, rather than help us break free from it altogether. 

 

Chip Walker is chief strategy officer at Movement Marketing Company, StrawberryFrog. Previously, he has led the strategy function at creative agency BBDO and marketing services agency Wunderman. He’s also lead strategy across the WPP companies (ad, media, digital, multi-cultural, etc.) for some of its largest clients including AT&T and Bank of America. Chip most recently served as CSO at Y&R’s brand consultancy, BAV Consulting, and EVP of Brand Planning for Y&R New York.

 

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