Being Different, Just Like Everyone Else.
We've all heard countless stories about successful brands going belly up because they fail to adapt to changing market realities and keep pace with their competitors. But we don't always hear about the brands that fail because they change—the organizations that work so hard to keep pace with their competitors that they wind up being virtually indistinguishable from them.
I once worked with a boutique college whose unique "apprenticeship" model of education was both effective as well as timely in light of growing societal dialogue about the cost of college relative to employment and income returns. The model was attuned to the times and—when conveyed clearly and consistently through strong brand messaging and creative—the school began growing at a time when its competitors were facing precipitous enrollment declines.
Nevertheless, the green-eyed monster of competitor envy reared its deceptive head as it so often does for brands that just "don't fit in." When observing its competitors, the school started to see its differences not as essential, distinguishing points of competitive leverage, but as shortcomings, things others had and they did not. They began to soften their previously unapologetic value proposition by weaving in messages that closely mirrored what other schools in their competitive set were saying. In short, they began saying, “we’re like them” rather than “we’re radically different, and it makes us radically better.” And, as if on cue, enrollments began to decline.
The negative consequences of blending in rather than digging in to difference is not new. Think of the famous 1980s actress who Had the Time of Her Life and then proceeded to have her distinctive nose “normalized,” only to find that it virtually ended her career. Or the famous Las Vegas debacle in which the popular adult destination attempted to join the more ubiquitous "family vacation" market, failing miserably until it returned to its roots, sticking a proud flag in its adults-only identity through its "what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas" campaign.
To be clear, diligently tracking what competitors are doing, and adapting to shifting consumer preferences is essential to survival and growth. But adaptations should be made strategically, in an effort to increase the degree to which you are seen as different and preferable—not to make you more of an interchangeable parody product. If the nose ain’t broke and it makes you memorable, by all means own it and flaunt it.