Along with ‘sharing is caring’ and ‘do unto others as you’d like done unto you’, ‘be yourself’ is one of those core teachings every North American child grows up hearing. Being yourself is valued for a lot of reasons: in our society, uniqueness and ingenuity are increasingly perceived as positive traits. Standing out from the crowd and making your own way in the world demonstrate perseverance and strength of character. It’s the entrepreneurial way! Sometimes, though, it feels like businesses lose their way. Instead of being what they are, they try to be what they think everyone wants. Why is that a problem? let’s take a look.
If everyone’s super…
Did you ever watch the Pixar film the Incredibles? It’s the story of a world in which superheroes have been forced to live mundane, unexceptional lives due to a series of high-profile incidents. The bad guy is a disillusioned brat who goes by the alias Syndrome. He wants to use technology to give the whole world super-powers, but for all the wrong reasons. His reasoning? ‘If everyone’s super, no one is.’
In the world of marketing, particularly online marketing, this seems applicable. A lot of people form an opinion on what a ‘good brand’ is, and they try to emulate these so-called ‘good brands’. Or, they see what’s working for other brands and try to do the same for themselves, expecting the same result. Unfortunately, there are a few things wrong with this approach.
1. Flooding the Market
The first problem with trying to emulate the success of others is that you wind up becoming one of many similar brands. Think of Coca Cola, for instance. It’s the first and biggest cola brand in the world. Now, think of your local grocery store’s house brand cola. It’s probably packaged with a red label and some kind of white, curly font. What it ends up looking like is a cheaper, worse Coca Cola (which it is). If you aim to ape the success of a bigger but otherwise similar brand by emulating their style, you run the risk of being the President’s Choice Cola to their Classic Coke. Not only that, but you won’t be the first (or last) business to try copying the big guys. By ‘going with the flow’, you risk being lost in a sea of similar brands with similar websites.
2. No Two Brands Are Exactly Alike
Trying to be like another brand is a flawed idea from the start. Just like no two people live exactly the same life with the same experiences, no two companies evolve in precisely the same way. Unless you’re part of a larger franchise, you need to create your own experience that plays to your strengths. The second a company tries to emulate another brand, they lose the ability to strategically brand themselves. Instead of analyzing their organization and creating a brand that perfectly suits them, they lose perspective and chase someone else’s vision.
3. Creativity in Advertising Thrives – Imitators Don’t
One common complaint among the public about modern branding is the lack of creativity. That’s partly because advertising is big business now. Media saturation is at an all-time high, and it will only go higher as we become ever better connected and big companies keep growing and expanding their influence. As such, we’ve gotten numb to advertising. It doesn’t work on us they way it used to. Once upon a time, ads just showed you the product and told you why you should buy it. They could be truthful or deceptive, but they were taken at face value. As more and more ads competed to engage with potential customers, consumers grew more wary of them. Today, it’s harder to sell than ever. Consumers are weary of hard selling and the big companies have ad spends so far beyond any small competitor that broad campaigns just won’t work. In 2015, Coke spent almost $4 billion US on advertising alone. The only way to take customers away from the big players is to become more adaptable, targeted — and creative — than them. You can’t do that if you simply try to emulate them.
Advertising is What You Can Get Away With
(Full disclosure: I stole that headline from Andy Warhol. Based on the nature of his art, I’m sure he wouldn’t mind.)
Advertising, and branding in general, is a peculiar mix of art, expression, and calculated engineering. When you’re looking to brand your business, you need to combine inspiration with genuine insight. It is very much the case that boldness is rewarded, but excess can be punished. The Old Spice ad campaign that began nearly a decade ago successfully rebranded the company as playful and fun. It was edgy in the sense that at the time, viral advertising and goofiness were novel. It was unusual and exciting for a brand to embrace the internet and communicate so directly with consumers.
The recent controversy surrounding the Kendall Jenner Pepsi ad proves that some lines ought not be crossed. People don’t like brands overstepping their bounds, blowing their importance out of proportion. Pepsi sells sparkling sugar water. It doesn’t help celebrities solve race issues in America.
Why does this matter for your brand? There’s a right way and a wrong way to sell yourself. Edginess can increase the potency of your brand, but stepping over the line can make you look foolish — or worse, actually hurt your public image.
Some Closing Thoughts
The takeaway from this article shouldn’t be that wild and crazy, ultra-modern brands are the be-all-end-all. Not every business suits zaniness. Not every business needs to be on Snapchat, or even Instagram. The lesson should be this: whatever your business is, advertise it shrewdly, but honestly. Customers can smell B.S. better than ever, and trying to be something you’re not will likely limit your growth, not expand on it.