Our media environment creates a relentless pressure to be the same. Embrace the need for difference.
In my neighbourhood, the four major banks have now all moved their branches together. While geographic distribution to meet different customer traffic and communities might seem attractive. They have settled in four shops in a row, with a few regional banks nearby. Harold Hotelling, a statistician and economist, was one of the first to explain this clustering behaviour as a response to risk. By choosing the same location and using the competitors proof of demand they split the market. Further away there is a risk of a geographic preference favouring one or another. Businesses give up strategic differences for safety given uncertainty.
Hotelling’s logic on clustering of location has also been extended to product similarities. We see a profusion of near identical products differentiated by price and often an invisible quality difference. So many organisations benchmark their product strategy by what others or the market are doing. Industry conferences are full of the same advice, the same consultants and the same case studies just with different brands attached. There is safety in the herd.
Spend a day in social media and you will see the same advice on business, strategy, careers and life recycled again and again. Much of what is called thought leadership is repeating well-worn platitudes. There is safety in this advice. It will not offend. Others have proved the market. You don’t take a risk and can capture your share of a proven demand for ‘5 no-fail tips on something.”
Don’t get me started on the universal sameness of ‘good’ images on social media and their implications for mental health, body image and more. We are surrounded by a sameness so extreme that I recently saw a post putting together halves of faces of different Hollywood actors. The mega hits are remakes and known franchises. Not surprisingly when the risk of a film is measured in tens of millions, there is safety in similarity.
All this sameness can be alienating and depressing for those who might not fit the perfect stereotype. At times the lack of context on all this success advice reminds me of an old joke about asking directions where the punchline is “If you want to go there, you’d be best not to start from here”. We are telling people to go the same place and some don’t feel like they are ever going to make it. In all our focus on proven safety we forget that we crave difference and that difference is what makes true success.
For all the people writing case studies of Google, Apple, Amazon, Microsoft and Facebook now, we need to recognise when they started they were different, deliberately so. Many of them were so different as to be unsafe, predicted to fail or doomed to a minor market share. Each has changed its category and then changed category so much that the initial risks and departures are lost in time.
As uncomfortable as it may be and as hard and long as the path may be, difference is what wins out. The point of segmentation is not to divide the market the way your competitors do so as to better deliver your competitors strategy. The point of segmentation is to find your own group of customers and to do something different valued only by them. Kevin Kelly talks about the power of winning the support of a thousand fans. It’s more than enough support for most businesses and people and the path to greater things. Do something different and valued by your chosen group.
In my strategy work, I use Lafley and Martin’s Playing to Win regularly as a simple and effective guide to the questions that should be addressed in market positioning. One reason is that it is explicitly focused on the choices and dynamics of differentiation. Most importantly it explicitly asks “How will we win?”. That is a question that is oddly left unaddressed in many strategies that just point out that what is to be done is already being done by others.
Choosing to stand alone feels scary. People will point out that the herd is safer and that others are doing better in the pack. Choose to stand different and go looking for the community that will support you to succeed as you choose to succeed. As they come over time, your own community will be the safety net for your difference.
Choose to be different. Embrace your own way to win. Find your own community to support that journey. Over time your difference will be the foundation of your position and success.