Our gut instinct as marketers is to go with what is working, because everything in the corporate rewards system is geared towards that: lack of risk appetite; the quest for short term results; even performance incentives. The irony for brands of course is that the more you go with what works for others, the less likely those ideas are to work for you.
I treat case studies with caution – not because I don’t love a good story, but because the implication is that if you do what the person/firm in the case study did, somehow you’ll end up with a similar or better result. “Proof” though sparks a hundred copies and in so doing it immediately starts to deteriorate the likelihood that such success will be repeated.
Imitation is comforting but not competitive
Martin Bishop included a lovely quote about this from Simon Silvester in this piece, “In today’s world, everyone is searching for the same best practice. Everyone benchmarks against each other. And everyone optimizes their communications plans. Everyone is copying each other. And so their brands are becoming clones.”
There’s a difference between copying an idea and applying it.
A brand can work brilliantly when marketers take the learnings from one market and apply them to another. Too often, it’s not that. Copying is a rash of look-alikes jostling to catch up and cash in on whatever’s hot right now. Suddenly every cereal in the breakfast aisle has exotic ingredients; and every piece of clothing is sustainably sourced. The immediate effect of that is to change the “standards” for the industry. Fashion, success and FOMO (fear of missing out) fuse to make everyone healthier, faster, quicker, sugar free …
If you want to see this powerful push for emulation playing out in your world, look no further than your LinkedIn feed. Today, almost every consultant is or aspires to be a speaker and, preferably, an author. Those were exceptional credentials once. They’re not anymore. In fact, they pretty much go without saying – and therefore the impact is much less than it used to be. Most consultants are not really consultants and speakers. They are speakers because they are consultants. Speaking is the new hygiene factor for all of us who consult.
In a world where everyone has access to a platform, the height of brand platforms, personal and corporate, is automatically diminished. So yes, while content gives each of us a voice, it also gives everyone around us a voice as well. And the overall volume is rising, because the platforms are lowering the price of admission in order to grow their communities. Back to Linked In. It has evolved from a publishing platform for the very few influencers to a platform for the many to a bulletin board for quotes and truisms as people desperately search for ways to keep up with what they perceive to be meaningful conversation. Democratisation is fading into commoditisation.
It’s scary when you bring differentiation down to this level – because you realise, as I did, with a sickening thud, that for all the work I do in pushing others to be different, my own business model has been exactly the same as thousands of others. I too have been unwittingly seduced by the case studies. In a world where so many think the future lies in being a speaker, writer, consultant – the real future can’t lie there at all. That combination is simply the new convergence point.
Points of consensus
The same dynamic plays out at scale. Brands run at tactical channels because that’s where the numbers are. It’s comforting to shout from within the crowd – to believe, subconsciously at least, that the more you do this as a brand, the more accepted you’ll become. But there’s no differentiation in that approach. It all drives to undifferentiated points of consensus – new industry standard behaviours. It spawns tactical rush-hour as brand after brand looks to a photocopied playbook. And the jury shows no sign of returning anything resembling a reliable verdict on what difference most of this noise generation makes for sales, margin or share.
‘Daring’ is not the same as distinctive
Very seldom do brands die from the outside-in. Most often, they are killed from the inside-out. By people believing that the most scary thing that can happen is that they get left behind because they didn’t catch whichever orthodoxy bus is leaving the stop this year. And the very nature of organisations encourages that. Corporate structures work against risk-taking because they are built on consensus and, ultimately, on what people are comfortable doing. Marketers often go with what feels ‘daring’ (because it’s a subjective variation on what they know) rather than what is distinctive.
The interesting dichotomy in all of this is that while brands are becoming bigger and more uniform (in terms of standards and consistency), because that makes things go faster and cost less, the world of buyers is becoming more personalised and individualistic.
Brands have built out brand frameworks to an amazing level of sophistication. They’ve named and renamed this hegemony so that it seems filled with options. But as more and more people adopt what everyone else uses, they are simply adding to the conformity. Ticking the shopping list of purpose, values, behaviours, tone of voice, SEO etc in and of itself doesn’t deliver you a distinctualised brand. It delivers you what everyone else has, in the same format, using the same words and within the same business structures and mentalities. For too many, brand strategy is now an expensive and meticulous road to sameness.
And that’s because fewer and fewer executives are prepared to accept the absolutism of uncompromising words. They cannot resist watering down the demands until the ideas enable them to do something they feel comfortable with. So now, everyone’s disrupting, everyone’s differentiating, everyone’s pursuing innovation (the same way) … so no-one is. These are just the new standards, the new hygiene factors. The words scream non-conformity, but the actions embrace the exact opposite.
Change guarantees nothing
Breaking with that temptation requires brands to accept two things that no-one wants to know. Most brands will fail – because otherwise markets won’t regenerate. And your brand is more than likely to be one of them because your business will not be prepared to go far enough. I bring this point up in workshops and I frequently watch the whole room nod outwardly and deny inwardly in a classic case of NOBS (Not our brand strategy). It’s human nature to confuse “change” with “success”. Every brand must change. But actually, change guarantees nothing – certainly not success. When every brand is changing as a matter of course, and actually because of the way marketers want to change together, ultimately most brands cannot succeed.
In point of fact, the true risk profile of building a distinctive brand never changes, no matter whether you are looking to make a comeback or you have a brand that has historically gone from strength to strength. You always have everything to lose. And some actions, particularly those that feel most reassuring, make that even more likely than others.
Note: A version of this post has been published elsewhere under the title Sameness Strategy Threatens Brands.