Friday, November 20, 2009

Begging to differ.


After a week of forehead-smackingly circular debates, I would like to propose that we ban differentiation. I’d like to suggest that all brands immediately refrain from this dangerous and archaic practice, and that there be some sort of penalty for failing to do so. I’m thinking something like, say, being exclusively distributed by Walmart. Just spitballing , here. We can discuss this detail another time, but the issue is, I have suddenly realized, pressing.

Like most evil things, it started out innocently enough. The idea that a brand has to be distinct from its competitors is hard to dispute, and it’s so deeply embedded in the DNA of marketing orthodoxy that a sane person would question it no more than they would gravity. Trout and Ries, the great sages of positioning, would nod solemnly at this from whatever Olympian sanctum they now inhabit. Free marketeers would add piously that the quest for differentiation is an incentive for continuous improvement of the things we buy, and that it preserves the sacred artifact of consumer choice. There is hardly a phrase less likely to invite argument in a boardroom than, “we have to stand out from the clutter.”

But differentiation, it turns out, is like a Pop Tart. Excellent as part of a balanced diet, but probably fatal if it’s all you eat.

For one thing, I am increasingly doubtful that differentiation, in isolation, even has commercial value anymore. In the marketing world, we tend to visualize our brands as being lined up on a metaphysical store shelf alongside their competitors like a bunch of hookers in a red light district. When you look at it that way, it makes sense that you have to stand out first if you’re going to do any business. Except that I’m not sure that’s the metaphysical space most brands compete in anymore. I think brands more often are nodes on an infinite grid of what people want and who can give it to them. In a searchable world, it seems to me that ‘different’ is well on the way to becoming quaint, as is the idea of clutter.

Meanwhile, the monomania for differentiation, for those marketers so afflicted, is turning brands into narcissists. By definition, they become self-obsessed and inward looking, oblivious to the world. In clinical terms, narcissism has a couple of cautionary aspects worth thinking about here: One is that it’s a short walk from there to sociopathy, and a brand without a conscience would be a scary thing. And the other is that narcissism is sure sign of controlling parents. If you don’t cut your brand some slack and let it out to play, nobody will like it and it will never develop its own character. Which, at the end of the day, is about the only kind of differentiation worth having.

Now ask yourself: Do I really want my brand to be a sociopathic hooker with unresolved parent issues? No, I think you do not.

So, until I can convince the government to make differentiation illegal (which I acknowledge may take some time), I’m going to boycott it myself. From now on, if someone wants me to help them make their brand awesome, I’m only going to help them make it relevant. I will refuse to talk about how their brand is different; I’m only going to talk about whose life it intends to make better.

Join me. There’s still time to stop this scourge.