CTAM Summit: Harvard's Moon Says Ignore Your Critics

Warns of "sameness" at day two opening session
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Complete coverage of CTAM Summit 2010

New
Orleans -- If you want to differentiate yourself from the herd, embrace your
negatives, ignore your critics and above all, don't listen to your customers.
That was the takeaway from Harvard Business School's Youngme Moon during a
lively opening session on day two of the CTAM Summit. And if it wasn't exactly
a touchy-feely paean to the dogged determination of the American business
community to super-serve customers, it offered food for thought for a CTAM
community that also prizes creativity.

The
incredible array of choices available to consumers, Moon asserted, and the
drive of businesses to stay hyper-competitive, has pounded every product and service
into a remarkable "sameness."

"And
what's perplexing," said Moon, "is everyone ... cares so deeply about
differentiation. They're not only committed to it. They are somewhat obsessed
with it. It's all they want to talk about. And yet ... all I see around me is
sameness."

Moon
offered a case study: shopping for new furniture. It is a task consumers avoid
because all around them are similarly looking furniture retailers offering an
enormous yet similar selection of sofas and dining room tables and homogenous
services (free delivery, lifetime guarantee). This creates dissonance.

"You
find yourself resenting the burden that you're going to be stuck with a living
room set for the rest of your life ... you surround your customers with helpful
benefits and they complain about those benefits," said Moon. "It is a classic
case of the cure devolving into the disease."

The
companies that have truly caught fire, that have energized consumers, and
inspired rabid brand loyalty are those companies that say no to their customers,
said Moon. Like Ikea.

"A
trip to Ikea can be an enormous hassle," observed Moon. "There is very little
stylistic differentiation. Good luck finding sales people at Ikea." And then
there is the "monumental" task of putting the store's furniture together when
you get home.

Ikea,
adds Moon, "refuses to give its customers benefits that its competitors
routinely give their customers."

And
yet, it is the discount furniture retailer with an "army" of loyal customers.

The
Mini Cooper is another study in reverse marketing psychology. It was introduced
eight years ago, before the economic recession and the implosion of the U.S.
auto industry, when monster gas-guzzlers were still flying off car dealer lots.
And yet, far from attempting to disguise or divert potential customers'
attention from the car's diminutive dimensions, the entire marketing campaign
for the Mini Cooper emphasized its tiny size.

And
there are stalwart examples of this reverse-psychology approach to building
brands among media companies. Apple, which Moon (correctly) asserted is among
the most "arrogant" companies to burn up the NASDAQ.

"Apple's
willingness to forge an independent path almost necessitates that it be willing
to ignore what the world is telling it to do," said Moon.

And
Twitter.

"The
thing that the critics laughed at the most was the 140-character limit," she
said.

But
it was precisely that small-bite approach to news and social networking that
has differentiated Twitter, catapulting the company into the Zeitgeist in a few
short years.

Another
example: Google's advertising platform. It completely eliminates the
possibility for creativity; no images, static font and color. But it is
precisely those limitations, says Moon, that "allowed Google to build an
advertising platform simpler, more flexible and more powerful than any
advertising platform on earth." 

"If
you want to be different," said Moon, "you must be willing to ignore your
critics and in some cases your customers too."

For
an ever-fractioning media industry captive to the tyranny of minute-by-minute
ratings and increasingly sophisticated ethnographic, psychographic and
demographic data and instant access to customer feedback, it is a bold
challenge.

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