Be Different or Else
By Jeffrey Baumgartner
Businesses encourage conformity. If you work in an office, look around you. Everyone probably has a similar sized and shaped working space, desk and chair. Presentations use approved corporate templates. Give me the name cards of you and three colleagues and I'd need to put my reading glasses on in order to differentiate them. Step into your conference room. It probably has an oval shaped table with black chairs on wheels surrounding it. There is a whiteboard and possibly some abstract artwork on the walls. In short, it looks like just about ever other conference room on the planet. And, if Elon Musk succeeds in starting a colony on Mars, you can bet the conference rooms there will look the same there too! As I said, businesses encourage conformity not only internally, but globally.
And that would be okay, except that businesses also need to be different in order to stand out, grow and take leadership.
The first marketing act any company should perform is to define how it differentiates itself from similar companies. Companies that fail to differentiate get lost in the crowd; they attempt to please everyone by being everything but utterly fail to be themselves. They are instantly forgettable. Customers will leave them as soon as an equally innocuous competitor offers the same thing at a lower price.
Companies cannot be market leaders by being anonymous in the crowd. They need to stand out as different from the competition; they need to be distinct in ways that customers perceive as being positive. That differentiation needs to be hard-wired into the company's strategic vision and communicated to employees, stake-holders and customers. It is impossible to lead if you are indistinguishable.
Being different in corporate vision is not enough. If you want your company to stand out in the 21st century's crowded marketplace, you need to be different in other ways too. Imagine your company is a business to business company that delivers projects of some sort. You are invited to bid on a project and you know you can deliver. You also know that other companies will be invited to bid and that they can also do good work. Most likely, you are invited to do a presentation with a question and answer session and then you leave a written proposal. Knowing that all the bidders can deliver the project satisfactorily, you could try to prove your company is better with a PowerPoint presentation full of charts, graphs and bullet points that will be forgotten faster than the last dishwashing soap commercial you saw on television. Not only are such presentations painfully dull, but they are probably exactly what your competitors are subjecting the client to as well.
Instead, do something radically different, but which still addresses the issues in the call for tender. Do not do a PowerPoint presentation. Instead, bring in some models. Or bring in some building bricks and build a model of the end product with the client. Not only do you gain further insights into the client's expectations, but you can be damned sure your presentation stands out and is remembered.
Sure, it may not work. The purchasing manager might lack a sense of humour. Your approach might be too outlandish. But, a boringly ordinary PowerPoint proposal might not work either. So, why not have fun and be different? It may not succeed every time, but it will succeed often. It will help build your company's reputation as creative problem solver, your company will stand out and, frankly, you will have more fun being different.
Products and Services
Your products and packaging should be different too. Iconic products are not products that look like competing products. Rather, they are the products that stand out for being different, new and original. They need not be innovative. Just sufficiently different that people can identify the products in shops without having to look for a brand name. BMWs command a premium because they are well-engineered cars and they are distinct in appearance from other cars. Hondas also has a reputation for excellent engineering. But their cars are not so distinct. This is partly why they are less expensive and considered by many to be less desirable than BMWs.
Services can be different too. Specialisterne, a Danish company, employs mostly autistic people not out of sympathy but in recognition that certain traits associated with autism, like attention to detail, strong analytical skills and logical minds makes them uniquely suited to certain high level jobs such as software analysis, software testing and even development. People with more severe autism can often still do an excellent job with data entry. The company is profitable and has grown tremendously because they are very, very good. They are also different.
In a world were every company is advertising and shouting on social media, the companies that stand out are the ones who are different, either in the way they use media (social and otherwise) or in the content of their messages or both.
Dove's Real Beauty campaign is an excellent example of this. When most beauty products feature impossibly beautiful, disturbingly thin, unblemished young woman, Dove came out with a campaign that focused on real beauty. Their models were not all skinny. They were underweight and overweight, tall and short, freckled and imperfect as women (and men, of course) truly are. Videos, shared on social media, showed real women talking about themselves realistically, rather than overdone models performing carefully choreographed moves that never happen in the real world. By being different, Dove stood out from the competition and their campaign has become a business school case study.
Even the images companies use on web sites, in presentations and on posters tend to be alike. These images tend either to be faceless graphical figures (such as in the cartoon illustrating this article); or they are generic office scenes with smiling, healthy people huddled around computer monitors or sitting energetically at spotlessly dull conference tables. Sure these images look slick and professional and businesslike. But they are also dull, forgettable and indistinguishable. If you want your graphics to stand out, you need to go beyond photo-library images and find, create or commission original images that ensure your company's communications stand out not only from he competition's but from nearly communications of every company on the planet. This costs a bit more. But it is a price worth paying if you want to stand out. It's why I draw cartoons rather than use generic stock photos to illustrate my articles, presentations and other materials. (By the way, I occasionally draw cartoons for others for a reasonable fee.)
Businesses Need to Be Different...
So, businesses need to be different to differentiate their brand, their presentations, their proposals, their marketing communications, their products and their services. Yet, businesses tend to operate in atmospheres of utter conformity. It is hard to be different in an environment of where difference is shunned. In such an environment, there is neither the inspiration nor the stimulus to be different, but a lot of pressure to conform. Moreover, the decision makers who can approve your product, service, marketing communications and other proposals sit at desks very much like yours. They meet in anonymous conference rooms and wear similar clothing to each other. In such atmospheres of conformity, decision makers are often compelled to conform without realising it.
Now, bear in mind here that I am not even talking about being innovative. I am merely talking about being different in order to stand out from the competition; being different to be remembered; being different to claim market leadership rather than being a follower. Yet, even this level of difference is hard to achieve in the corporate environment. This is why so few companies stand out as being unique. In a business world that pressures managers to conform not only to their corporate norms, but the general corporate norms of all companies, few managers are bold enough to diverge from the corporate status quo and make their companies be different. Visit the offices of a bank, an oil company and food manufacturing company and they will be broadly the same in terms of the space, the desks, the colours on the walls. It is only the details that differ.
If you want your company, people, products, services and marketing communications to stand out, you need to be different. You need to allow and encourage your team to be different. And to be meaningfully different, you need creative thinking. Lots of it.
If your company is struggling to innovate, but failing, I suggest you forget about innovation for now. Instead, focus on being different. Focus on standing out. Focus on being unique. Claim your rightful place as a market leader. Once you take pride in being different, you will find that innovation comes easily.
You can do this by training you and your team to think differently and develop original ideas into reality. Train people to use creativity in all aspects of operations and implement ideas that are not necessarily better, but definitely different.
Hire truly creative people and people with diverse backgrounds. After all diversity means difference.
The good news is that as your company differs more and more from others, it becomes increasingly easy for you and your colleagues to think differently and be creative. A creative environment stimulates creative thinking. A diverse environment stimulates diverse thinking. An environment that encourages thinking differently makes it easy to think differently.
In short. Be creative and be different. It can only help your business.
What Are You Going to Do Differently Today?
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