flashback friday: playing it safe is too risky

[Flashback Friday: this was originally posted on June 29, 2012. Enjoy!]

Beige sells. Average sells. Vanilla sells. The comfort of conformity sells. Meeting most of the needs of most people builds big businesses.

All the marketing books tell us we need to differentiate our products and stand out. Build that brand image. And then 95% of businesses try to stand out by fitting in. The word “innovation” is thrown around these days as the holy grail of business success, yet from the customers’ point of view it often just means:we’re as leading edge as all our competitors.

Similarly, there’s a lot of talk of authenticity lately. We’re told we need to be authentic leaders keepin’ it real while we bring out the authentic best in our teams so we can sell authentic products to our authentic customers. A nice thought, but a hard sell. There are very real social and business costs to being authentic. The biggest is that some people will not like you, some people will reject you. So we try to be “authentic” in a way that everyone likes. (hint: that doesn’t work)

Being all things to all people is the fastest, most direct route to mediocrity. Vanilla products sell because they fit the needs of the most people, but no one is passionate about vanilla. It becomes a commodity. They buy your vanilla product today, but there’s nothing to keep them from replacing it with a competitor’s vanilla product. When you have a commodity you are only competing on price.

Being all things to all people creates a bigger customer pool. But we forget that it also attracts more competitors. I recall an interview with an actress years ago. She had some acting success as a teenager, but her appearance was non-Hollywood so she was only considered for a few parts. Wanting more parts, she had plastic surgery done, bleached her hair, and voilà  she now looked just like every other wannabe actress. She blended in and faded away.

Here’s my test for authenticity: Are you willing to turn down business because what’s being asked is not what you’re best at? Are you willing to turn down 1,000 potential customers who are kind of interested in your product or service so that you can focus on the 100 customers that are deeply interested?

As an individual are you willing to turn down or leave a job that doesn’t fit who you are and how you want to affect the world? Are you willing to be known for your uniqueness? Are you willing to be known for who you are? Are you willing to define yourself and bring every ounce of greatness, passion, and soul to your work?

You don’t have to, you know. And I don’t fault anyone who doesn’t. Authentic has risks. Different has risks. Standing out has risks.

But so does blending in. So does being average, beige, mediocre. No person or business will ever attain greatness by being one of a million. It’s only done by being one in a million.


vanilla passion

I’ve long heard that vanilla is the best-selling ice cream, yet I’ve met very few people that say vanilla is their favorite. So what’s going on? How can a flavor that few love be a best seller? It wins because it is less offensive to more people. Few love it, but few really hate it. Vanilla is a safe choice.

That seems to be the strategy of a lot of businesses: play it safe and offend fewer people than your competition. The opposite approach is to be very clear about what you are and what you aren’t and focus on the customers who truly appreciate what you’re about. Rather than being some things to all customers, the focus is on being everything to some customers.

Likewise, many (most?) people approach their careers and lives that way. It’s pretty obvious from the sameness of LinkedIn photos and bios that the goal is to fit in, be like others, don’t stand out. Don’t veer too far away from the tribe norms. And, on some levels, there’s nothing wrong with that after all vanilla sells more as a whole.

The problem is, it gets passed over more, too. Vanilla sells more, but no one is passionate about it. I gravitate toward ice cream flavors with names like “Chocolate Armageddon” but you might hate that. You might prefer straight up mint chip. Others go for rocky road. We push the vanilla aside to get to what we really want.

When we look at products, businesses, or even people that folks get really excited and passionate about and want to go out of their way to champion, support, and tell others about, it’s never a plain vanilla product, business, or person. The things we get passionate about, the companies we are loyal to, the people we really want to help succeed always stand out in some way.

If we choose to stand out, there will be naysayers, critics, and people who don’t like us. But there will also be the raving fans. If we choose to play it safe there will be few naysayers, critics, or people who don’t like us. But there will also be few cheering us on.

Being different doesn’t guarantee success. In fact, it often impedes it. First impressions do count, the image we present to the world does matter; people judge us based on the information we give them. I can’t control my height, gender, race, age, etc. but I can control how I dress, how I’m groomed, what I say, how I say it, etc.

Being different doesn’t guarantee success, BUT successful people are often different. They think different. They operate different. They have a different message for the world. And they get different results.

So often it seems that the giants don’t norm off of everyone else. They aren’t looking to see what others are doing before deciding what to do. Instead, they go their way and let other choose to follow or not. It’s ironic that so many of our icons are also iconoclasts.

The guys over at Talent Anarchy (twitter: @talentanarchy) refer to our individual uniqueness as our freak flag (a term I love). It’s not about piercings, tattoos, and blue hair. It’s about owning who we are as individuals and being comfortable and honest enough to be really authentic. That is really, really hard to do. And, done right, there is scary, incredible power there.

It’s a tough choice. But remember: sometimes the choices that look the safest are actually the most dangerous. After all, when was the last time you bought vanilla ice cream as a treat for yourself?


fear of a human business (the freak flag advantage)

Business is run by humans for humans so why is the business world so, so scared of showing their humanness?

With rare exception, corporate social media policies shout: “We’re terrified our customers will find out that actual people work at this company!” The policies are very clear that you should never, ever associate yourself with the company. Don’t reveal that you have opinions, actual thoughts, passions, dreams, hobbies, families. Don’t give customers the opportunity to appreciate each individual’s uniqueness, good and bad. Assume customers are so easily offended that they will boycott the company because of what an employee posted on a social media site. Give no one the benefit of the doubt.

It’s so sad, it’s funny. There’s so much good that comes from recognizing humanity and individuality. It makes companies and their products real and relevant. Companies (marketers anyway) want us to have a relationship with the brand, yet don’t realize that no one develops attachment to faceless, soulless, neutered, beige vanilla sameness.

One of the easiest ways to differentiate your company is to let your humanness shine. But few get that. They miss that the root of differentiation is being different. And that celebrating your authentic differences and actually standing out is daring and wonderful.

Yesterday, though, I came across a magazine advertisement for the Jaguar XF that blew me away. The company not only got it but made it the absolute core of the entire ad campaign!

At risk of plugging products I know nothing about, let me describe the ad. Maybe you’ve seen it: two page spread with three electric guitars and amps taking up almost the entire space, in the lower left is a small picture of a sports sedan, in the lower right is a small and understated  Jaguar company logo. The headline is: “Some of the other machines our designers play with.” It goes on to brag that the lead design of the new car is the “spike –haired, head-banging lead guitarist of his own band, Scattering Ashes…” and describes how he brought that amped up rock passion to designing this car.

Wow! An ad that gets attention, an admission (no, a celebration!) that they have passionate-not-quite-mainstream employees, and a darn good looking car. A great, eye-catching ad that takes a risk and shows commitment to shattering old images and shaking up the status quo. Then it gets even better. There is a QR tag to hear the music. Whip out your smart phone and you’re taken to a youtube video with a tongue-in-cheek opening warning and a Scattering Ashes song playing while three Jags make lurid slides around the tarmac.

Wanna see?

Some of the commenters on youtube mention that the song isn’t all that good and it seems out of sync with the Jag image. Yeah, it’s not the greatest song ever. And, yeah, it runs counter to an image of   traditional, stodgy, understated, quiet class. Cleary, Jag is looking to aggressively redefine their image. It’s an electric scream against the what you think they are and an overdriven invitation to join them where they want to be.

But wait! This isn’t a neon colored hatchback with extreme graphics being sold to the fast & furious crowd. This is a luxury sports sedan being marketed to people that can drop $50 – 70k+ on a car – you know, uptight, conservative folks in suits and ties. Shouldn’t you be telling them how much status the car will bring them, or focusing on safety, or winking at how sporty you’d like them to think it is?

Sure, you could. But then you’d be just like everyone else. Or you could celebrate the glorious passion and humanness of your employees, crank your company culture up to 11, and actually differentiate yourself by actually being, well, different.

Don’t know if the car’s any good or if the campaign will be successful, but I love the bold stance. Anyone could have done it, but only one did. Unfurl the freak flag and rock on!