01 Sep 2010
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Dare to be Different

Rethinking the Essence of Competition
Re: Jeffrey Cruikshank (PMD 51)
by Jeff Cruikshank;Youngme Moon

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Professor Youngme Moon, who teaches one of HBS’s most popular electives (Consumer Marketing), has recently published her first book. In Different: Escaping the Competitive Herd (Crown Business), Moon reflects on how in mature product categories the frantic effort to keep up with the competition by adding features and gimmicks can paradoxically result in a “sea of sameness.” In a personal narrative voice, and drawing extensively on the experiences of family and friends, she offers a fresh perspective on how companies can successfully offer products that are meaningfully different. As a result, Moon writes a book about business that does not read like a business book.

What motivated you to write Different at this point in your career?

Well, for quite a long time, I had been resisting the idea of writing a business book, because I honestly thought that the last thing the world needed was another business book. Laughs And although I liked to think I had something interesting to say, it’s a big deal to ask people to set aside ten hours of their life to read something that you wrote.

I was also troubled by the fact that so many business books seem to be “processed” and “packaged” in the same way. But ultimately, I decided that I was being too limited in my thinking, and that I should just try to write a book in a voice that my students would instantly recognize as being my own.

The review of your book in Harvard Business Review (April 2010) said, “Most business books get right down to business. This one is different.” Did you take that as a compliment?

Absolutely. The biggest compliment that anyone could give me about the book would be that it was an easy read, that it felt like sitting at a dinner table having an interesting conversation with someone about the way the world works. There is a certain seamlessness between business and the everyday lives of ordinary people. I wanted to create that same kind of seamlessness in the book.

You write that the kind of brand affiliation that characterized our parents’ generation is dying a slow death, in part because our “competitive competence” in marketing is killing that sort of loyalty.

Let me be clear about what I mean. Certainly, brand affiliation still exists, and people are more brand savvy today than they’ve ever been. But the kind of deeply ingrained fidelity to certain brands — the kind of loyalty that our parents’ generation felt toward even mundane brands like Tide detergent or Miracle Whip or Sony televisions — is definitely in peril, at least in my opinion.

Why is that? One of the drivers of this change in brand mentality is that as consumers, we are tempted by a far greater number of brand choices that rotate much more frequently. I talk in the book about how, many years ago, I used to date a guy who was a fanatic about Häagen-Dazs ice cream. Well, back then, there were only a couple of premium ice-cream brands. Not so today, when we are confronted with dozens of premium ice-cream brands, which means that most ice-cream connoisseurs are constantly tempted to sample new offerings in the market.

I think the implications for marketers are huge. So part of the book is an exploration of what those implications are. Another part of it is a dissection of some of the brands that have managed to be exceptions to the rule, and that have somehow managed to hold our attention and loyalty over long periods of time. What are they doing to make that happen?

One of the things I tell my students is that what’s a little bit scary, as a marketer, is that if you were to pick up a classic marketing textbook and do everything that was prescribed in that textbook, you would end up being just like every other marketer out there. In other words, you would end up being just another mediocre player in the market, doing what everyone else is doing.

To be an extraordinary marketer today, you have to do something extraordinary. Something different. Something that a textbook isn’t necessarily going to prescribe.

You present successful brands in several categories: reverse brands, breakaway brands, and hostile brands. Are these formulas to follow?

I didn’t want to give the impression that there is a formula for being different. Yes, I offer examples of brands that have succeeded in being different. But the tricky part about marketing — and I make this point in the classroom all the time — is that if some brand does happen to do something extraordinary and every other brand in the market simply emulates it, those other brands lose, the marketplace loses, consumers lose, and you end up destroying value for everyone.

So differentiation is not a formula. Rather, it’s a way of thinking.

The book contains a range of interesting references a reader might not expect to encounter in a business book — people like Harvard psychologist Ellen Langer and computer-graphics expert Craig Reynolds. Are they just in your head, waiting to be accessed?

I guess they are. I’m a voracious reader. I read everything — fiction, nonfiction, lots of different genres — which means that I always have lots of strange stuff in my brain.

You reflect on the Web as a marketing channel, including the interesting observation that in the broadcast media, people are used to sell products, whereas in social media, products are used to “sell” people. Any further ruminations on the Internet?

It’s impossible to study marketing today and not spend a lot of your time thinking about changes in media, and how those changes are affecting the way people consume. I am fascinated by — maybe even a little obsessed with — the way changes in technology are affecting not only how marketers communicate with consumers but also how individuals express themselves, and explore different parts of their personality in this public forum.

I’m thinking about teaching a new course at HBS, following up on some of these ideas. I’ve found that a course is a great way to explore ideas that eventually make their way into a book.

Given that you have your eye on all these new social media, and given that you’ve just written a book that needs promotion, are you doing anything special in new media to get this book out?

No. There’s something a bit disingenuous about aggressively promoting a book that tries to argue for more marketing restraint, don’t you think? Laughs Honestly, if people find the book interesting, that’s wonderful. And if they find the book helpful to them in any way, that’s even more wonderful. But the last thing I want to do is shove any particular book down anyone’s throat. There are lots of fabulous business books out there, and I’m just grateful to be included in the conversation.

— Jeff Cruikshank (PMD 51, 1986)

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