Lessons From Dove, IKEA, Jet Blue And Other Brands Who Dare To Be “Different”

DifferentI’ve written that Marketing Books Are A Waste Of Time. They leave me feeling exasperated, malnourished and still hungry, much the same way you’d feel after eating a half dozen donuts for breakfast.

The better ones may have an interesting premise, but it seems that even these should be five to ten pages at most. Instead, we get 200+ pages of needless repetition not so well disguised as illumination.

Nevertheless, I have recently been forced to put this prejudice aside as I have been thrust into the world of academia. I am very fortunate to be giving a few lectures to graduate students in USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, and sitting in on the Branding class taught by Dr. Ben Lee, Clinical Professor and Associate Director of Master of Communication Management Program. Dr. Lee recommended that I read the three books assigned to his class, so I jumped right in and polished off the first one over the past weekend.

Thank you, Dr. Lee. “Different” is indeed a different kind of marketing book, surprising from start to finish. The author is Youngme Moon, the Donald K. David Professor of Business Administration and the Senior Associate Dean for Strategy and Innovation at Harvard Business School. Her background would lead you to think that this might be a difficult, dense volume of dry, academic theory with prescriptive recommendations.

Delightfully, this is not the case. Dr. Moon writes in a highly personal, accessible style while delivering a provocative way of thinking about branding.

Her initial premise is one that I’ve written about extensively. That is, how so many brands are virtually indistinguishable from one another, especially in the packaged goods category. Moon feels that marketers are far too concerned with competition and are too busy playing defense to innovate. So rather than doubling down on brand strengths, engaging in true product innovation or boldly communicating a singular, meaningful message, marketers have embraced the Sisyphean task of making incremental, often trivial, changes – adding features or creating line extensions – only to have their competitors copy them. Any advantage is quickly lost and they’re back where they started.

For example, a laundry detergent adds a fabric softener and all major competition jumps on the bandwagon so they’re not left behind. Then another adds bleach, and so does everyone else. And on and on. The end result is a confusing sea of products with minimal, meaningless differences between them. To illustrate this point, just take a look at the toothpaste section in Walgreens.

It becomes so difficult for consumers to distinguish competitors from one another that a generic category description replaces brands names in conversation. Moon cites the example of one of her friends relating an experience in a “Hyatt-like hotel” she stayed in. The friend was unable to recall the actual brand name.

I see this all the time in the qualitative research we conduct on behalf of our clients. Even in what could be considered high involvement categories, respondents claiming to have have purchased products within the past week often cannot recall which brand they actually bought.

The book wisely offers no silver bullet fixes or listicles of best practices. However, three broad strategies to break out of the “herd mentality” and carve a truly “different” brand offering are put forth and discussed in detail:

  • Reversal Brands differentiate themselves by taking something away rather than adding features. Examples include IKEA and Jet Blue, brands that did indeed strip away features to create a more favorable price/value equation, but strived to create unique brand experiences and provide a few delightfully surprising add-ons as well. In the case of IKEA, negatives turned into positives, as the long, time-consuming, do it all yourself process of buying furniture became an “adventure” rather than a chore.
  • Breakaway Brands reframe a product. By calling Pull-Ups “underpants” instead of “diapers” Kimberly-Clark launched a successful new category by allowing parents and their toddlers to feel better about themselves. Swatch turned the notion of a “fine Swiss Watch” on its head by positioning and pricing its products as affordable fashion accessories. Rather than the once or twice in a lifetime purchase of an expensive time piece, Swatch encouraged encouraged multiple purchases.
  • Hostile Brands go against the grain. Introduced when gas prices were low and SUV’s were popular, the Mini Cooper touted what would normally be considered a weakness, its very small size.  Birkenstocks are ugly, but the company is proud that the design alienates a large percentage of the shoe purchasing population. It makes the appeal to those who love defiantly love the brand that much stronger.

What each of these approaches shares is a commitment to creativity, open-mindedness, and most importantly, a willingness to take bold, risky actions. They also reinforce my affection for a quote from the late, great singer-songwriter Harry Nilsson: “Everything is the opposite of what it is.” Harry was famously eccentric, to put it mildly, so who knows what he really meant. But for me, the quote captures an essential truth about marketing. When others zig, you zag. The success of great brands is based on being different, often the complete opposite.  They reject the status quo and never blend into the crowd. Richard Branson, Howard Schultz, Steve Jobs and Jeff Bezos certainly didn’t get rich by acting like everyone else or making marginal improvements to existing products.

It’s why most, but not all, of the success stories cited in the book do not involve packaged goods companies or those who practice traditional brand management. Truly innovative companies are far more likely to have a top down culture dictated by visionary CEO’s and/or Founders who are still involved in the business. Their people are relentlessly pushed to succeed and there is nowhere to hide. It’s a much different working environment than the old-school company populated by people tip-toing through their one-year assignment on a brand, playing it safe and making sure that they call no undue attention to themselves by doing anything to threaten quarterly earnings.

I once had a client delete nearly a third of a positioning recommendation based on extensive qualitative research we had conducted. He refused to present important findings and recommendations to top management, because in his words, “this contradicts previous findings and beliefs of the company.”  He never challenged the insights or recommendations on their merits. There was nothing, in his mind, that was necessarily “wrong” or off base about them in any way. In other words, he wasn’t interested in any new ideas and mortified by the prospect of presenting anything that did not conform to mainstream corporate thinking. Not exactly a paragon of courage, and certainly not responsible marketing management.

But it’s not impossible for an ordinary, household product to rise above the pack. Moon proves this with her discussion on Unilever’s Dove. While other personal care brands were relying on the age-old practice of using the usual super-skinny super-models in their ads, Dove was brazen enough to show “real” women of all shapes and sizes, dressed in plain white (i.e., not sexy) underwear, in all their marketing communications. Dove was now the soap for who you really are, the brand that lets you celebrate yourself and not some unattainable fantasy. It was an incredibly gutsy and controversial move that paid off.

As I like to say, so many marketers love to talk about innovation when what they really crave is comfort. It’s extremely risky to be different. As evidenced by the client I just described, even the suggestion of a change in direction can generate sideways glances in many companies.  Better to keep your head down and tinker at the margins. Put in your year or two on the brand and hopefully you’ll get promoted and have the opportunity to do it all again on another brand.

I once had a boss, a veteran of the U.S. Marines, with a fondness for the saying, “Either lead, follow, or get the hell out of the way.” Marketers need to be confident and fearless to lead. Followers need to be have complete trust in their leaders.

There is certainly no dearth of followers in the marketing world, but they are not the problem. The problem is too many myopic leaders devoid of any real vision and/or solely motivated by short-term, quarter to quarter results. I’m sure Dr. Moon would agree. They should get the hell out of the way.

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