I have a beef with branding. At least with branding books, branding courses, and branding teaching.
All branding advice I’ve heard so far – even in recommended talks, lessons, or posts – sounds vague or overly superfluous. However, being a marketer and not having strong branding skills is a non-starter. This is why I dived deeper into it with CXL’s Brand marketing mini-degree and a slew of branding books recommended by the teachers in it.
This is how I came across “Different” by Harvard Business School professor Youngme Moon. And I loved it!
I’ll share with you a summary of the main points Moon makes and some of the quotes that bring the ideas to life. As always, I’d definitely recommend you read the whole thing, it’s just over 250 pages. But if not – these book notes will be more than enough.
The problem with competitor analysis
Moon starts by defining the issues brands face today and how they affect brand strategy.
To start, think about how you do a competitor analysis and what next steps would you take based on it. If you are like most businesses (or even like most people because we compare ourselves against others on a personal level, too), you probably do the following. You look at the competitive market, define a set of common characteristics, and measure your performance against others in your field.
However, there’s an inherent issue with this type of competitor comparison:
The minute we choose to measure something, we are essentially choosing to aspire to it. A metric, in other words, creates a pointer in a particular direction.
What Moon is getting at is that when we compare ourselves with others, we end up trying to “mend our weaknesses” rather than improve our strengths. She says, “My guess is that you’d feel pressure to address the “vulnerabilities” in your brand. Meanwhile, it might not even occur to you to do the opposite to double down on your strengths, further extending the distance between you and your competitors.“
This type of competition leads to two standard responses:
- Augmentation by addition: brands start adding more features, higher capacities, and additional bells and whistles. The offers become increasingly complex, but they also start looking very similar. Moon links this to customer apathy: “The more generous the standard value proposition becomes within the category, the easier it becomes for consumers to be indifferent to which competitive alternative they choose.”
- Augmentation by multiplication: in this scenario, brands start creating different “specialized” versions of their offer to attract different customer segments. At the start, this makes sense. But when this process goes haywire, there’s a growing profusion of alternatives with minor differences. Again, customers get more and more confused and indifferent.
How customers react
A market plagued by this strive for sameness becomes boring and confusing. It gets filled with many brands that look and sound the same. Moon explains, “I use the term “hyper-maturity” to refer to this stage of category evolution; it’s the stage at which all of the hyper-segmentation, hyper-augmentation, and competitive hyper-activity within the category starts to appear as a bit of a blur.“
In this case, consumers start thinking that it doesn’t really matter which brand they choose. After all, they all look the same, right?
Once the dual dynamics of competitive herding and competitive hyper-activity begin to dominate a category, the category itself starts to become incompatible with brand devotion.
Gradually, customers stop thinking about individual brands. Instead, they look at the product category as one indistinguishable lump.
Moon distinguishes four different types of customers, only one of which has a clear brand preference:
- Category connoisseurs: “Connoisseurs have tremendous affection for the category and are discriminating with respect to their choices, but this doesn’t necessarily lead to a particular brand preference.” These people aren’t brand evangelists – they choose on a case-by-case basis and don’t get too loyal.
- Savvy opportunists: “Opportunists are akin to connoisseurs in one respect: they are brand-agnostic category experts. They are coupon clippers, bargain hunters, rewards points accumulators. They’re often cynical and disillusioned by what has happened in the category, but they maintain their comparative diligence for utilitarian reasons.“
- Pragmatics: “Pragmatics are non-differentiators; they no longer expend the energy to keep abreast of the latest competitive permutations in the market. They’ve grown skeptical of the differences between brand alternatives, so they make their buying decisions based on some combination of habit, routine, price, and convenience. An extreme version of a pragmatic would be an indifferent, someone who treats the category as almost pure commodity.“
- Reluctants: “They dread participating in the market and would actually prefer to remain permanent category outsiders except for the fact that they occasionally have no choice. Their distaste, discomfort, and lack of familiarity with the category manifests as confusion, frustration, and awkwardness, and they’re eager to exit the market as quickly as possible.“
- Finally, there still is a small pocket of brand loyalists. “These are the folks who, despite the number of competitive alternatives in the market, still exhibit a stubborn passion for a particular brand.“
Yes, this last segment exists – but it won’t be enough for you to build a business around if you’re just a well-rounded alternative similar to all other players on the market. The value, as the book’s title suggests, is in being different.
The truth of the matter is, true differentiation sustainable differentiation is rarely a function of well-roundedness; it is typically a function of lopsidedness.
Enter idea brands!
Moon defines idea brands as those that are “more interested in separation than comparison.” They are not afraid to go against the grain and attract attention. They know some customers won’t like it. But the potential upside massively outweighs the risk of becoming invisible in a heap of similar brands.
When we are overrun with sameness, there’s nothing like a little difference to rekindle the senses.
Moon defines three types of idea brands, but she’s quick to explain that this isn’t an exhaustive list. First off, some brands will be a mix between two of these types. Additionally, brands can find new ways of being different that don’t comply with an existing categorization. So treat these as a sort of sample set.
Reverse brands believe that less is more. They strip away additional features, they simplify their solution, and they are willing to offer something that at first glance looks bare bones but really isn’t.
“They take their stripped-down value proposition and infuse it with some unexpected form of extravagance. That is, they surround their otherwise parsimonious product with their own version of splendor, and it is this inspired bundle of attributes that leads to the firm’s unique positioning in the category.”
Think about IKEA. They ask you to haul your furniture, they require you to find it yourself, and their stores don’t look or feel luxurious. But at the same time, they offer free childcare and have an on-site restaurant with tasty options. This is exactly how a reverse brand behaves: “It looks to create a symbiosis of elements that we’ve been trained to believe don’t belong together. The idea is to be an oxymoron, and an agreeable one at that.“
Reverse brands take us back to basics so that we remember what we enjoy in a category in the first place. “You are eliminating the extraneous in order to shed new light on the fundamental. Reverse brands can be startling in their clarity for precisely this reason.“
As humans, we like categorizing things. Breakaway brands use this trait to their advantage. They actively work to position themselves in a different category than the one they would’ve been naturally added to. “Companies that introduce breakaway brands recognize that when it comes to consumption, our classifications tend to be both superficial and arbitrary. But they also recognize that these classifications mediate our consumption experiences in profound ways. And so they deliberately intervene in our process of classification, offering us an alternative category rubric to replace our default one.“
This is sort of genius. The breakaway brand doesn’t want to be compared to others in its “true” category. But it also knows that categorization is important, so it uses that human tendency to its advantage. “As a consequence,” Moon explains, “when we are confronted with a breakaway brand for the first time, we “get it.”
The different category a breakaway brand puts itself into ensures that our expectations and our behavior work to its advantage.
An example of a breakaway brand Moon talks about is the robot dog Aibo created by Sony. It’s a stellar example of engineering and robotics. But it’s marketed as a cute pet. The reason is that we have different expectations from a pet. We know it will sometimes misinterpret or completely ignore commands. We know it might act in illogical ways. And all of this is interpreted as a personality quirk rather than a failure of technology – which might be what we’d say if we had put Aibo in the mind category of “household robots.”
Of course, for a breakaway brand to work, we need to cooperate. The brands “are counting on the likelihood that we’re going to want to be complicit in the breakaway because we’re ready to move away from our entrenched patterns of consumption. That we want to let go.“
Frankly, I’m not entirely satisfied with this explanation. It seems that Moon is trying to explain away why some breakaway brands succeed and others don’t, but it’s not clear how you can get there in concrete terms.
The third category Moon talks about is brands that make us work harder. They are not easy to love or easy to get to. “Some hostile brands do this by being forthright about their product shortcomings; others do it by being evasive with their distribution; still others do it by disavowing feel-good promotions in favor of messages that are likely to repulse as much as they attract. No matter the stratagem, hostile brands erect barriers to consumption, barriers that could in many ways be considered tests of our affiliation.“
Let me introduce you to the Macbook I’m using to write this article. When it was first announced, I had to wait a few months before it was available in my region. If I want to change the battery, tough luck – I can’t simply get one online and snap it straight on. And I need to be equipped with a number of adapters to use some of the most common peripherals. But once I’ve jumped through a series of hoops, I find myself… happy to be using the product? I know, it’s weird.
These are “take it or leave it’ brands. They refuse to pander, they refuse to kowtow, they refuse to even consider the possibility of modifying the product to sand away the rough edges.
The reason that hostile brands work is that they are a refreshing change from the servile “dear valued customer” nonsense. They use friction to keep us engaged and interested. And it works.
Creating idea brands requires freedom
One key point Moon makes is that idea brands “are tenuous at birth.” The core of them – at least at the start – sounds like something crazy, impractical, weird. A no-go. So Moon asks us to give these brands some space when we start developing them.
There comes a time when we need to allow the practical side of our brain to have its say. But strange and unusual ideas need a co-coon, at least in the earliest stages of their infancy, if they are to have a fighting chance of survival.
I think this is an important point (so much so that it requires a separate section in this post). Because innovative organizations thrive only if the people in them feel free enough to innovate without judgment.
The idea brands of the future
In the final section of the book, Moon looks at where idea brands will go next. And there are three key elements she feels will always stay important for idea brands:
- They need to offer something that’s scarce: reverse brands offer simplicity in an overcomplicated market; hostile brands offer truth in a world that seems too polished. New idea brands will continue this trend of “offering a break from that which is profuse” – although the thing that they need to offer may change depending on new market developments.
- They will reflect a commitment to a big idea: differentiation is a way to make a big bet on something new. Being different can almost feel like a cause rather than a branding strategy. So idea brands will need to take big risks and promise big things. “They won’t just be different in a little way, they will be different in a big way.”
- They will be aligned with the complexities of the human spirit: idea brands know and understand human behavior – and they take advantage of its intricacies. These brands must continue to feel personal and personable to make their mark.
One point Moon makes is that, to continue creating different brands, we need to understand the people around us.
Of course, in order to do this, we need to be in the world. There is oxygen all around us, and we need to be breathing it.
This is very much in line with my personal focus on customer research. To market well, we need to know the people we market to. And there’s no substitute for that, we need to talk to people directly.
Escape the herd
Youngme Moon’s book is a great read because it offers some practical recommendations. Understand your competitors, but don’t try to catch up with them – run the opposite way. Rather than adding more features and complexity, make your offers stand out with their simplicity. Don’t be afraid to be contrarian – people will like you for being a straight shooter. And find a way to make your differences apparent. Sure, you may alienate some customers. But if you can generate true brand loyalists by doing so, it’s all worth the risk!
If you liked this post, check out other key takeaways from great marketing books in my Book Notes series.