Bold moves can overcome limited uniqueness…
Let’s face it, in the vast majority of CPG categories — despite efforts by some brands to push forms of differentiation — for the most part they are cloaked with sameness and similarity. It is just hard to find fertile territory for defensible, sustainable and obvious-to-everyone uniqueness. You may start out as a unicorn, until competing brands reverse engineer your leap, then differences in story and concept start to recede.
That doesn’t mean you should give up on constantly pushing the strategic envelope towards radical differentiation. The benefits of creating a “category of one” are remarkable and profitable. Brand standouts spend less on marketing because of their natural magnetism, allure and the elevated distinctive value they possess. It just doesn’t require constant drumbeating to out shout adjacent competitors. You don’t need to, and you aren’t focused on them to begin with.
Let’s be real: it’s likely over time that what made you famous will be commoditized. Jamba Juice invented the smoothie business. Over time smoothies were commoditized by similar competing products/brands and the emergence of RTD (ready to drink) versions in every corner of grocery and foodservice retail. Jamba started down a strategic path to differentiate itself by transforming into a healthy lifestyle brand. We know the details as we were part of the effort.
But that takes time, added investment — and less patient investors pushed back on doing anything that stepped beyond the core concept, forcing Jamba back into its commoditized cup. Which reminds me of Marlon Brando’s famous line from On The Waterfront, “I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody” – ah yes too many brands find themselves eventually in a wistful trap, at times of their own doing. (Assuming they recognize the lost opportunity).
Leaning into over-reach
But don’t despair, there’s another pathway available if you have the courage and fortitude to pursue it. Here it is – do something generic with such bravery and power it appears to others that you are the only game in town. Whatever that focus might be, you creatively own it, manifest it, and lean into it without reservation, hesitance or limitation.
In Will Guidara’s eye-opening book “Unreasonable Hospitality” he recounts the journey for his restaurant Eleven Madison Park to being named the best restaurant in the world. Not by pushing the envelope of complicated, artistic tweezer food excellence – a frankly similar strategy advanced by nearly every top-echelon restaurant and celebrity chef on the voyage to four stars-dom. No, they bent the rule and devoted themselves to ridiculous, unreasonable, over-the-top, crazy levels of hospitality and guest service. In doing so Eleven Madison became a category of one in a uber-class of similarly great kitchens all helmed by talented culinary commanders.
First Alert, the smoke alarm brand, invented the residential smoke detector and in doing so saved countless lives. An engineering driven company, it beat everyone else by being first with the most. Over time however, the transfer of marketplace power to large format retailers like Walmart and Home Depot, the business was commoditized and sold on price – technology appearing to most consumers as the same between brands. However, another tech innovation at First Alert opened the door to rethinking the brand and business.
First Alert once again stepped up to invent the residential carbon monoxide alarm, addressing an insidious household hazard and source of deadly blood poisoning from an invisible, odorless gas released by malfunctioning furnaces, stoves, water heaters and fireplaces. The event created an opportunity to pivot, and First Alert embarked on a journey to home safety brand focused on the health, safety and wellbeing of families. The mission- oriented platform enabled a new brand voice in parallel with unusual collaboration partners that reached way beyond “stop, drop and roll.” It was a magical era for the company and its growth until ownership changes forced it backwards into the old engineering mindset and price driven player in commodity categories. Heavy sigh. We know the details because again we were engaged in building the strategic shift while it lasted over a nine-year period.
Outerwear brands embracing sustainability isn’t unique. Messaging around protecting planet earth is everywhere in the category. Strategically there’s not much separation in this business based on these beliefs and the tech in garments. But Patagonia has emerged as a category of one despite this condition by its sheer tenacity and willingness to over-reach, over-extend itself on the path to sustainable behaviors and policies.
If its broke, they fix it. Yes Patagonia, in their effort to reduce its impact on resource consumption and emissions, encourages users to avoid purchasing new garments by offering free and unlimited repairs on any of their products. Some might say, are you crazy? Like a fox we say. The continued efforts by Patagonia to break rules and stretch itself beyond ‘normal and expected’ is testament to a form of strategic brilliance. It is and they are unique in a business where other types of real differentiation are hard to own.
The requirement here is boldness and courage; to take your belief system and push it to ‘unreasonable’ edges. On the path you can expect to face decision making that will be hard, strange at times and difficult. You do it because as a business you actually, really, truly mean what you say and claim to be important. The call to action happens when the ethos holds the decision-making keys to the kingdom and you just over-commit.
Do something inspiring
If you’re looking for a consistent thread in these examples, it’s in executive leadership that is both visionary and courageous. That means leaders who hold the belief system close and see the advantages hidden in the tea leaves to push beyond the norms of expected and reasonable brand behaviors.
The Super Bowl is coming soon. While it may be distant memory for many, or not a memory at all for most, Apple introduced its Macintosh computer with one of the boldest and most ambitious TV commercials ever made. It was expensive to produce and air. It was an over-commit of the highest order employing a strategy counterintuitive to tech category behaviors. The marketing budget was invested in a swing for the fence that didn’t mention a single product feature or benefit. It was wholly a cinematic and emotional statement of ‘now you can change the world.’
Kapow in 60 seconds. It was a gutsy move to be sure and a manifestation in 1984 of new thinking about brand purpose and meaning that cast Apple as a category of one. The belief system held sway and the courage shown there was palpable. Jobs made it so, enabled by his creative partner Lee Clow from ad agency Chiat Day. Eventually Microsoft did their turn on the ‘graphical user interface’ innovation with Windows, but it never pushed Apple off its course. Even with some tech equivalence in there, Apple remains a separate, unique and distinct brand with a huge base of advocates and ambassadors.
- Make no mistake, employees are part of the solution here. When you over commit, they need to join you as a population of insider, storytelling evangelists.
The roadmap to adventure
This all starts with your brand’s higher purpose, deeper meaning and belief system. If you don’t really have a fix on that then none of this really works because there’s nothing powerful enough to over-commit to.
- What are you on the planet to accomplish beyond balance sheet imperatives? How are you working to improve people’s lives? Whatever your higher purpose might be that draws consumers in, you should know that people want to be a part of something greater than themselves.
Once you have refined your brand “why” it’s fair to ask what can you do to stretch and over-deliver on that promise? If the answers you come up with bring some discomfort, that’s a good thing. When courage is required, you know you’re on the right path.
Our point: differentiation isn’t always found only in the product and category you created. It can be brought to life going above and beyond to deliver on your purpose. This can get you to ownable differentiation, just remember you can’t take your foot off the gas. If you do, commoditization’s rustiness will begin to take root. In the immortal words of rock band Journey’s legendary lead singer Steve Perry, “Don’t Stop Believin.”
If this story inspires you to explore brand courage and boldness, and you’d like to discuss the potential framework with experienced hands, use the link below to start an informal conversation to discuss your journey to uniqueness.
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Bob Wheatley is the CEO of Chicago-based Emergent, The Healthy Living Agency. Traditional brand marketing often sidesteps more human qualities that can help consumers form an emotional bond. Yet brands yearn for authentic engagement, trust and a lasting relationship with their customers. Emergent helps brands erase ineffective self-promotion and replace it with clarity, honesty and deeper meaning in their customer relationships and communication. For more information, contact [email protected] and follow on Twitter @BobWheatley.