So you want to be different?

Candice O'Sullivan
January 23, 2014

As many businesses grapple with the ‘new normal’, it’s becoming increasingly common for firms to approach me wanting to be ‘different’. They don’t want to be like everyone else. They don’t want to look like everyone else. They don’t want to sound like everyone else. It’s the brief every creative agency loves to hear.

But, like anything worth achieving, the devil (in this case, differentiation) is in the detail – and this is where the best intentions can begin to unravel.

The first sign of trouble is when I ask a company or firm exactly how they are different and they respond with a a long pause followed by, well, nothing.

How is this possible, you ask? It’s possible when you invest all your time saying you want to be different without attending to the much more difficult task of understanding how you are (or aspire to be) different. Often, when I take a company through a process to help them identify the ways in which they are different, it turns out that they are, in fact, exactly the same as everyone else.

When we then move on to how they could be different from everyone else, they get incredibly excited.

Until, that is, I tell them what they need to do to achieve it. Then they do the psychological equivalent of counting to ten, and their excitement turns to fear: ‘Oh no, we can’t say that. That would scare our clients. No, we can’t look like that. Our clients wouldn’t understand. We’d alienate all our clients if we did that. It makes us look too different from everyone else. Our clients need to see us in the same light as our competitors.’

What happens next?

The harsh reality of the commitment required to actually be different shatters the aspiration and the company ends up pretty much where it started:

  • The corporate blue logo stays put (maybe with an extra swish of cornflower or duck-egg blue for good measure; perhaps a touch of forest green to say ‘we’re also environmentally friendly’)
  • Every piece of copy sent to them is reworked at every level of the organisation until it no longer makes sense to anyone outside the organisation
  • Some superfluous tagline is invented by the company’s next big star (which, despite meaning nothing to anybody beyond the C-suite, quickly adorns every piece of corporate livery)
  • The poor marketing or brand manager who began this whole process clogs up my LinkedIn feed, as they put their faith in the power of status updates to get them headhunted.

The lessons?

  1. No agency, good or bad, can make your company look or sound different if you’re not different (or not willing to make the necessary changes to be different).
  2. Being different takes courage, but do it right and the payoffs can be big (see the likes of Axiom Law or Marque Lawyers).
  3. If you’re not willing to do what it takes to be different, then don’t blame your creative agency for not doing its job.
  4. If your website copy ends up reading as if written by a committee, that’s probably because it was. The agency can only challenge you so many times before its writer’s voice becomes lost in the hubbub.
  5. Being different is as much a mentality as a process. Wrap your head around what it means to be different and you might actually start to practise what you preach.

For a good article on the basis of firm differentiation, read this post by Lee Frederiksen from UK branding specialists, Hinge MarketingFind Your Differentiator: 21 Ways to Gain a Competitive Advantage for Your Firm.

This post was contributed by Candice O’Sullivan, Director and Head of Strategy at Wellmark. You can find Candice on Google+ at +Candice O’Sullivan or follow her tweets on brand strategy, content marketing and related topics @candicepill.

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