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Chapter 9: Focus and Differentiation

Early in the book, I discussed a few of the key issues that our studio has helped companies sort out over the years. Two of the most important points (touched upon in Brand Commandments) deserve extra attention. Long before a website, brochure, or ad campaign is contemplated, your company needs to focus and differentiate from others in the marketplace. Failing to do these two things is quite possibly the greatest reason that marketing fails.

Do you share your full mailing address on a first date?

First dates are weird. Each individual tries to present their best characteristics. In doing so they edit what they say, in order to hit the high points and not overwhelm the other. This is common sense, right? You just don’t share every tiny detail about your life during an introduction, do you? Well then… tell me why the majority of companies’ website home pages are cluttered with text and information that just doesn’t matter.

Many of us act like a frantic person who has to point out every imaginable detail. “We do this, we do that. Want our blog? Sure! Need a site map? We have one of those too! How about a search? We can help you do that! Here’s our support section, but don’t forget our news area. Oh right, these are the most popular downloads from our site. Hey, wait a second… Did we show you these photos from our staff Christmas party? Oh! Oh! Oh! Here are some testimonials, and a few of the things we do. We do other stuff too—just ask! Whatever you want, we can probably do. And we’ll do it better than the other guys. We don’t know who they are, but we’re better… honest!”

This sort of mess is by no means limited to websites. It goes right down to the core of many businesses that lack focus and therefore stumble in presenting themselves. When your organization lacks focus, it is reflected in every aspect of your messaging. So let’s step back for a moment and look at the big picture. To do this, we’ll bring in our old pal, Jack Palance.

Curly has “one thing”

Remember the movie City Slickers? It was a corny 1991 comedy that somehow generated around 124 million dollars. The movie is about a few men who go on a cattle drive and learn some life lessons along the way. One of these lessons is something I think about when we help companies determine what they want to center their brand around.

In the film, Billy Crystal’s character, Mitch Robbins, experiences a midlife crisis. He and Curly, the trail boss played by Jack Palance, initially find themselves at odds with one another. They later connect, in part as a result of Curly’s insights. At one point, Curly asks if Mitch wants to know the “secret to life.” He then holds up his finger stating, “One thing… just one thing.” He concludes, “You stick to that one thing and everything else don’t mean shit.”40 Bear with me here—I promise there’s something useful to take from all of this.

The challenge we often face is that with so many possibilities for things we could do, we often fail to ask which ones we actually should. In our businesses, we start working on one thing. If it doesn’t immediately prove fruitful, some are quick to leap to another approach. This leaves us in what business consultant and author Jim Collins refers to as “The Doom Loop”: a seemingly endless pursuit of new directions that rarely lead to success.41 Similarly, many find it difficult to say “no” to work, which leads them to take on things that can be managed but are perhaps not the company’s forte. Mitch then asks, “That’s great, but what’s the one thing?” to which Curly responds, “That’s what you’ve got to figure out.” This is precisely what you have to determine: what is your company’s one thing?

Perhaps I shouldn’t be relying on pop wisdom presented in a movie to tell my story, but ask yourself: what is your company’s one thing? My guess is that you likely do a few different things, and don’t feel quite ready to concentrate a single one. It is, after all, unnerving to think about dropping any potential sales.

Once you do something well…

I like noodling about on the guitar but I can’t actually play a whole song. I enjoy running in races, but limited time keeps me from training sufficiently. On some weekends I find interesting recipes and cook, but the results are spotty due to infrequent practice. Every year I promise to go snowboarding but most winters pass without me having done so. Over the years I’ve also owned a punching bag, weight set, bass guitar, medium format camera, and the list goes on.

My bet is that you know this feeling too. Although many of these pursuits seem exciting, there just isn’t enough time to learn them all. So we tend to find a few things we really love, and just concentrate on those. This can lead to a cycle in which we get more practice, are subsequently praised or rewarded, and therefore are even more compelled to work at it.

The same basic principle holds true for your company. By concentrating on one thing, you find all kinds of little advantages that you didn’t anticipate. First of all, training time for new staff is reduced as you’ll better systematize and document processes. Ordering will be simplified, as the variety of inventory will be reduced. Better yet, by buying larger volumes of specific things, you might manage to negotiate better rates on the ones you do order. The point is that by doing fewer things, you will be much better at them.

I should also note that some choose to position around one thing without completely suspending their other activities. This doesn’t help simplify organizational processes, but it can help a company get known for something. Often the company’s choice is to be known for one thing, or unknown for many.

Pizza at McDonald’s

When McDonald’s first opened in San Bernardino, they served hamburgers, milkshakes, and fries. In the years that have followed, they have experimented with a number of different products including: deli-style sandwiches, McLobsters, poutine, McRibs, chicken fajitas, hotcakes, Spam, pies, smoothies, and many more.42 Testing so many of these different options gives McDonald’s something to advertise. People like new things, and you can only advertise the same burger as “new” so many times. Additionally, their presence in international locations gives good reason to explore more regionally appropriate options.

The one tangent that sticks in my mind is the McDonald’s pizza. Although they toyed with the idea twenty years earlier, McDonald’s finally introduced family and personal-sized pizzas in the early 1990s. The ads were brilliant, featuring the word “Pizza” in white on a bold red backdrop. The “z”s were replaced with two sets of golden arches, and it took just one quick glance to catch the message.43 Nevertheless, you can no longer buy pizza at McDonald’s. Why?

Some cite the challenges found in the time required to heat the pizza, while others criticized the flavor. I’m more inclined to think the whole mess related to a focus problem. We’ll allow most companies some latitude when it comes to their offering. We accept a chicken sandwich at burger shops as it seems closely related to what they do. Similarly, curly fries and onion rings fit. Pizza, however, doesn’t play nice with burgers. Both are foods, but from different “families.” This leads us to ask, “Why would I go to a burger place for a pizza, when I could go to a pizza place for one?” Let’s put this another way: How would you feel about buying your condoms... at a bakery?

Just before McDonald’s launched its new product, a New York Times article by Eben Shapiro discussed the industry as being worth $21 billion and detailed how McDonald’s had put several years of R&D into perfecting the technology and offering.44 This process included widening drive-through windows so the pizza boxes could be passed through them, not to mention the remodeling of kitchens to accommodate the required ovens and warming bins. McDonald’s believed that adding this item would strengthen their dinnertime business, and one can certainly appreciate their desire to do so. Yet, the research and development, massive advertising budgets, and all the other reasons they had simply didn’t change one simple fact: people don’t buy pizza at burger joints.

What you get for going tight

Think about the frustration of being a McDonald’s franchisee and learning you needed to pay for these changes and equipment. You’d also have to train a batch of teenagers a new set of processes and find a place to store all of the uncooked pizzas and boxes. These are the kind of problems you experience when you take on things that aren’t part of your core offering. You’re forced to do too many things, and it can make you crazy!

McDonald’s reasons for this new thing blinded them to the facts. They didn’t accept that their pizza simply wasn’t as good as that of established pizzerias. They also didn’t offer delivery, which is a service typically seen as standard when it comes to pizza. Likewise, the options to customize one’s pizza simply weren’t to be found, given the logistics of offering pizza in a burger shop. For McDonald’s to have made their pizza a viable offering, they would have needed to give us a big reason to choose them over a neighborhood pizza place. They had none. It was a “me too” effort, and it died as such.

For you, pizza may be a fine business, but you’ll need to focus in order to get people to talk. I already have Marcello’s where I can find authentic brick oven roasted pizzas; Panago fits the bill when I need something quickly; and Flying Wedge helps with my craving for interesting, deep-dish styled pizza. I have the über-cheap 99 cent slices across the street from the apartment, the Pizza Hut for all you can eat at lunch, and the place across town that makes delectable flatbreads. Still, somewhere in there is room to stand out. The important part is to figure out how, and then maintain your focus.

A little risk is required

Innovation, and subsequently differentiation, can only be achieved by people willing to do unconventional and maybe even risky things. This can be frightening, and sometimes the results are hard to measure. Again, when most of us try to innovate, we look to our peers and work to understand what they are doing successfully. This is a valid approach—surveying the marketplace is certainly worthwhile. This is where our interest in others’ actions must end, though. Once we understand the competitive landscape we have to suppress any urge to imitate or replicate what others have done.

Have you ever noticed how any small innovation quickly ripples through an industry? Let’s consider something as inconsequential as the notion of “bottomless” soft drinks. For the first restaurant that offered this, it was probably a great little perk. Others quickly followed suit, and soon this didn’t make anyone seem notable. If you choose to differentiate, you might be wise to think about defensibility. Any computer manufacturer can replicate Apple’s aesthetics and innovations. That will just result in pale imitation. Few have a culture of design and innovation like Apple. Some will pilfer ideas and cheaply copy them. Apple will still be a year (or more) ahead of the pack, doing their own thing.

Living with PHSSD

I remember adolescence as an exercise in conformity. (I suspect this is still the case.) Although there were ways to differentiate a little, these methods were kind of “regulated” with tribes (i.e., nerds, headbangers, jocks), which formed to establish a kind of safety in numbers. Truly differentiating oneself in adolescence came with the risk of being ostracized by one’s peers, or “looking stupid.” With all of this risk, many chose to lay low and not do anything too unique.

Ten or twenty years pass, and some of us find ourselves marketing a company. This is where Post High School Stress Disorder or PHSSD (a term I’ve completely fabricated) rears its ugly head. Here, at a moment with great opportunity and a blank canvas, we find ourselves unable to do anything but follow. So we look at every other company that’s similar to ours and “try on what they’re wearing.” As I’ve noted before, doing what others are seems sensible, but it might not actually be working for them. Also, marketing successes aren’t transferable. (We’ll get into that in a moment.)

Most times we find ourselves left with a few options:

1. Copy someone else.
2. Do something boring but safe.
3. Be different.

The choice seems like a no-brainer. The first option should be “out,” given that we’d be labeled copycats and have to adopt the limitations of our neighbor’s campaign. Number two just seems foolish; boring marketing is about as sensible as ordering flavorless food. The third one? There might something to that. Perhaps this is an opportunity to break through the noise and say something contrarian, exciting, scary, wild, cheeky, poignant, or even memorable! Yet, this almost never happens, due to our cunning nemesis: PHSSD.

Sure, we may flirt with some of these exciting possibilities, but at some point, we’re struck with a paralyzing fear of making a blunder, getting fired, or “looking stupid.” I bet I don’t have to tell you how badly we don’t want to look stupid! So instead we fall back on either option 1 or 2, and are then left to wonder why our marketing isn’t performing as we’d like. At least we didn’t get beat up by our boss. Whew—dodged a bullet there! (Now if only we could find someone to take to the prom!)

A fruit company?

In 1985, I was at the height of my personal “dork-dom.” I read books about ninjas, played Dungeons and Dragons, and drew pictures of naked women. (I typically focused on breasts.) My brother and I watched movies like Revenge of the Nerds and Weird Science not just for entertainment, but instead as life manuals of sorts. These movies illustrated just how we might rise above our lot in life by starting a fraternity of dweebs, or by engineering a woman with our own home computer. We really wanted a computer.

For obvious reasons, I don’t often think back upon this time, but a memory of the 1985 Computer Buying Guide is lodged firmly in my psyche. I have my dad to thank for seeing the importance of a computer in our lives and anteing up for the purchase. He didn’t do so haphazardly; a computer at that time cost several thousand dollars. And keep in mind, those are “1980s” dollars, which made it a substantial purchase. No, my dad first bought the 1985 Computer Buying Guide, in order to make an informed decision. At the same time, I put down my drawings of breasts for a short while, and studied that book from cover to cover.

At a time when terms like “operating system” sounded unfamiliar, these guides helped people understand and compare the available options. I have to say, it was an awfully crowded market! There were many computer makers (some you know, some you don’t) trying to grab a piece of the market. Some were industry leaders like Xerox, Sony, and even AT&T. Others like Microdigital, Robotron, and Merlin are names most have long forgotten. A few had truly bold monikers like MSX, ICL, NCR, SMT, NEC, IMCE, and CCD.45

In light of this, it’s understandable why the people at ACT chose to try a different name. Sure, they could have gone back to their full name, “Applied Computer Technologies” but that probably seemed a little long. No, here was a chance to do something different: not a meaningless acronym or some long-winded name. They could come up with something unique that wasn’t even related to computers—something that would stick with you just for how unexpected it was. And they almost did, with their newly chosen name: Apricot. Hey… wait a second! Isn’t there another computer company named after fruit? Hmmm… that’s weird! What a coincidence!

I still remember the Apricot name from that 1985 Computer Buying Guide not for their innovation (apparently they were a highly innovative company) but rather as “the one that changed its name to sound like Apple.” My guess is that someone at ACT reasoned, “It worked for those guys; why can’t it work for us?” Unfortunately, that logic doesn’t hold when it comes to branding. As a result, you’ve probably never even heard of the company.

In case you’re wondering what ever happened: Apricot was later acquired by Mitsubishi to help them compete with Japanese PC makers. Although they continued to innovate, their approach was slow and resulted in an inability to compete with faster moving rivals. The company closed and their remaining assets were sold in 1999.46 Since then they have re-emerged as a maker of netbooks. Curiously, the photo showcased on their homepage is of a new Apricot netbook with Apple wallpaper on it.47 (Some people never learn.)

“We have this product, and, well, it could be good… but (minor issue) one of the original founders is, well, sort of involved in some… well… um… genocide. Any ideas?”

Advertising agencies often talk about “big ideas” and that’s because the right ones can be incredibly powerful. With one particular project the odds were very much stacked against the agency. Today, our perception of the Volkswagen brand relates to a personable car that’s fun to drive. In the late 1950s when the ad agency DDB (Doyle Dane Bernbach) was first presented with the assignment, things were quite different.

The 1973 oil crisis was years away and Americans loved their cars. They favored ones like the Chevrolet Impala, which could be outfitted with a 348 cubic inch (5.7 L) W-series Turbo Thrust V8. This was the kind of car that people wanted to drive. So if you were marketing cars in 1959, you’d probably talk about the driving advantage of wide track wheels, fuel injection offering huge horsepower, and “striking show-car styling.” Volkswagen wasn’t selling cars like this.

Created with a very different notion in mind, the Volkswagen was intended to be the “People’s Car.”48 In contrast to the big and showy nature of what was in vogue stateside, they concentrated on creating a more economy-focused vehicle with better reliability and increased ease of use. Oh yes… I should also note that the Volkswagen Bug was the result of collaboration between Ferdinand Porsche, and a rather angry little man named Adolf Hitler.

By the end of the Second World War, the Volkswagen factory was heavily bombed, only really surviving as a result of Ivan Hirst, a British Army major, taking interest in the company.49 It sputtered along for years, almost having its factory moved to Britain in the process.50 In 1949 the company came under the control of the West German government and became representative of the country’s regeneration. In 1955 Volkswagen of America was formed, and the Beetle was on its way to becoming one of the most recognizable and revered cars in history.51

Ask yourself: left with the challenge of marketing this car, what would you have done?

1. Copy someone else.
2. Do something boring but safe.
3. Be different.

I think most would have gone with the second option. They would have looked at the market, determined what was popular, and tried to appeal to the supposed interests of consumers. If the Impala was roomy, the Beetle could be made roomier! If it was powerful, perhaps the engines in the Beetle could be souped up! If the trim was popular on the Impala, why not add something like that to the Beetle? Really… how hard could it be?

But the folks at DDB didn’t suggest any attempt to mimic the competition. Instead, they looked at what the car truly was and from this built one of the most famous marketing propositions in history. They asked car buyers to “Think Small”52 and consider the economy of “using five pints of oil instead of five quarts,” of “never needing anti-freeze,” and of “racking up 40,000 miles on a set of tires.” This understated ad copy was coupled with clean, minimal layouts, and witty headlines. As a result, the Beetle didn’t need to compete directly with cars like the Impala. Instead, it started its own race. The car’s simple, reliable, sensible, and different presentation made it something of its own.

In light of today’s oil prices and concern regarding climate change this campaign might seem almost passé. In the late 1950s, however, this was radical differentiation. It took the domestic car companies decades to catch up—if you believe they ever really did. Fifty years later, and that campaign still holds its own. It occupies first place in Advertising Age’s list of Top 100 Advertising Campaigns; moreover, it serves to inform the company’s brand values to this very day.53 They travelled less familiar ground, and doing so changed the future of that car company, and advertising itself. Differentiation works. As Bill Bernbach (legendary ad-guy and partner in the agency DDB) himself said: “Rules are what the artist breaks; the memorable never emerged from a formula.”54

Differentiation has to be woven into your company’s soul

Once you stop following others, your direction can truly be your own. I could carry on about all of the companies that have differentiated effectively, but I don’t really need to. You know them already. You know that Marilyn Manson is a weird, semi-alien seeming guy who likes to yell and shock. You know that FedEx is overnight and that The Body Shop is natural. Similarly, we all think the Nintendo Wii is fun, Google is search, and that Jeep is off-road. By clearly differentiating at some point, each of these brands has become remarkable, and therefore memorable to us.

But, you counter, it was easier for these people to differentiate: they had more money. I argue that some of them have money now, because they chose to focus and differentiate. All of these companies could likely do many more things than what they’re known for. By exercising restraint and fighting the desire to fit in, they succeeded where others have failed.


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