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Great Products Need Something Borrowed and Something New

Posted by Bob Warfield on December 3, 2010

Seth Godin, one of my favorite bloggers, has a great post on the value of clichés.  His observation makes a lot of sense: we need the familiar to be able to lock in on a product or idea.  Without it, whole new cognitive mindshare has to be built before we have a place to pigeonhole the thing when we think about it, and that’s expensive.  Most startups (heck, most any company) shouldn’t undertake that kind of expense unless it has to.  As Godin goes on to say:

Here’s the thing: you can’t stand out if you fit in all the way, and thus the act of deciding which part isn’t going to match is the important innovation.

That’s the key: the part you decide to do different is what’s important and you can’t decide to do everything differently.  While we’re at it, the difference can’t be subtle:

Matching an element almost looks like failure. Matching not-at-all, on the other hand, is the refreshing whack on the side of the head that causes attention to be paid.

Think about it.  The world’s great products consist of a familiar bundle of clichés together with a really important difference:

An iPhone is a telephone (familiar bundle of clichés and expectations) with insanely great industrial design and user experience (the really important difference).

Let’s do some more:

–  Rolex:  A watch that’s built with massive Swiss precision.

–  Ferrari:  A sports car that adds hot Italian passion about performance and style

–  Porsche:  A sports car that adds cold Teutonic precision about ultimate performance and form following function

–  Mercedes:  A luxury car that adds German quality

–  Cirque du Soleil:  A circus with a whimsical theatrical fantastic twist unlike anything you’ve ever seen before

Are you getting the idea?  Note that it’s okay to focus on sub-markets so long as you don’t have to create them.  “Sports Car” is a sub-market of “Car”.  “Hybrid” is too, though it wasn’t a short while ago which is why makers went out of their way to make the initial versions look so different.  They had to carve out mindshare by piggybacking on what was different about their offering versus the broader “Car”, and they needed to maximize those differences to deliver Godin’s refreshing whack on the side of the head.  Hence they looked funny on purpose.  Now they look like non-hybrids in many cases except for the badge on the back.

Here’s a crazy scary thought:  In Subliminal Negativity Theory, 37Signals’ Jamie wonders whether the predominantly negative sentiment the press capitalizes on rubs off on the advertising that goes on right next to the stories.  I think it’s just the opposite.  The contrast makes the ads look better than the real world.  They’re what’s different, so they sell even better against the dark backdrop.  It’s hard to go wrong in questions of marketing or design if you start by focusing on what’s different, and then add enough familiar elements to tie what you’re presenting back in to the framework of the viewer.  The need for contrast is why sales people who never say “no” are not as successful as those who know exactly when to say “no”.

Being different is the essence of competitive differentiation.  The trick is to be different enough to be remembered and loved without being so different you’re hard to accept.

How are your products different?

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