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The danger of the Blands

November 13, 2020


The Danger Of The Blands

We’ve Got the Blands: The Dangers of Trends in Marketing

It’s been said that imitation is the highest form of flattery. And, in marketing, that’s true. Every once in a while, we’ll see a truly unique company crop up on the scene. A brand decides to shake up the market with an innovative campaign. Or we get a plain old revolutionary product—like Apple’s iPod.

And then come the imitators. Suddenly, we’re inundated with a bunch of poseurs whose brands look, feel, and even act alike. These are “the blands.” They have no unique ideas or positioning of their own; they’re copy-cats at best. They’ve existed in every era, but the most recent incarnation of them—a bunch of Kickstarter-funded, direct-to-consumer, subscription-based boxes—give us a particularly good example of why we have to engage in contrarian thinking.

You Can’t Be a Rebel When Everyone’s a Rebel

The phenomenon of blands is, as I said, nothing new. They happen in every era. Think about Apple’s iPod. It was followed by every tech and music maker creating their own knock-off version of the MP3 player. Some tried to get a little bit creative. Most tried to emulate Apple’s formula: intuitive design, small size, funky colours, cool software and a music store.

Case in point: Microsoft’s short-lived Zune player. And take a look at what Microsoft is doing right now. They're cloning iPads (the Surface Pro), trying to make Windows mimic macOS a little more, and even getting into the phone game.

How about an example from the app world? Facebook bought Instagram, which had brought an innovative idea to social media. When Snapchat arrived on the scene, Facebook’s team set about cloning Snapchat’s “unique” features. They incorporated those features into Instagram, then into Facebook. Facebook-Instagram integration continues, giving the impression that we’re going to have Facetagram or Instabook soon.

Facebook isn’t unique in this regard. A new social media platform crops up and is either snapped up by a bigger player or cloned out of existence.

The problem, of course, is that at a certain point, it all starts blending together. We already know we can’t differentiate by products any longer. There’s hardly any difference between Instagram and Snapchat these days. Microsoft and Apple are closer together than ever before.

Now, what happens when we take this kind of convergence and apply it to our brands?

We end up with a lot of brands that look exactly the same.

The Great Eyewear/Razor/Mattress/Etc. Wars

In 2010, a couple of entrepreneurs created Warby Parker, the first of what would become “the model” for new Internet-based startups. The idea was simple: sell fashionable eyewear direct to the consumer via a website. Cut out the optometrist and the bricks-and-mortar retail location.

The promise was high fashion at lower prices. Over the years, the model has changed a bit. Customers still buy primarily through the website, and they get a five-day free trial. If they get their frames and don’t like them, they can send them back.

Warby Parker has started making its own eyewear, as well as running physical stores. It’s also inspired hundreds of lookalike businesses selling D2C over the Internet. Think DollarShave Club, Casper mattresses, and more.

The business model pioneered by Warby Parker relies on heavy marketing to get people to try them out. Without a bricks-and-mortar presence, the company has to convince people that buying online is okay. They also have to convince people that their product is just as good (if not better). The company has to get the word out and assure people that they’re getting the highest quality product. And they need to know they're getting it for less thanks to the virtues of buying online.

Countless brands have tried this since. They usually adopt the same marketing tack that Warby Parker pioneered. You’re a rebel, buying from this small, humble start-up that’s shaking up the industry. You’re joining a revolution of smart people who are getting better stuff for less. You’re technologically savvy, doing away with the stuffy analogue way of doing things—and you’re saving money.

It’s the same logic DollarShave Club (and others) has used to sell razors, and that Casper and its imitators use to sell mattresses.

Yet, as much as you can copy a business model, you have to do something to make yourself stand out. And that’s where the idea of “blands” comes in. DollarShave Club is indistinguishable from the five other brands also offering the exact same thing, in the exact same new-and-revolutionary way.

You Can’t Copy-Paste a Brand

You can copy a business model and see some success with it. (The Warby Parker model is notoriously difficult to use; even the founders say it’s been tough to grow the brand).

That isn’t true for branding. We can look to our tree metaphor and see why.

There are hundreds of different types of apples. There are Macintosh and Golden Delicious, which are considered “eating apples.” And there are varieties that aren’t so great for eating, like Northern Spies and Cortlands but they taste delicious in a pies, applesauce, and more.

Each apple fills an occasion. Each apple has a unique flavour and appeals to different people or has a unique occasion for consumers. So if you set people loose in an orchard to pick their own apples it would be interesting watching them determine which tree to pick from. They trees may look the same. They may even get lost trying to navigate the orchard full of the same looking trees. And if they find one they love, they may not be able to find that same tree on their next visit. In this example, there’s no opportunity for brand loyalty or an emotional connection. The brand in this case is the type of apple vs. an apple experience. 

In this example: Brands don’t matter. They’re all the same in the end.

Look to Brand DNA to Find Differences

Apple trees are a good example, because they are often literal clones of each other. So all the Golden Delicious trees in our orchard are, quite literally, the same. There might be very tiny differences based on how much light one tree got or its soil or how much rain there was. But there’s not going to be too much difference.

That’s fine for apples produced on a large-scale. Apple producers don’t want huge variation in varietals between one tree and the next (can you imagine if one Golden Delicious apple was super sweet and another was the sourest thing you’d ever tasted?).

Brand marketers aren’t apple producers in that sense. If the orchard is the market, we want to stand out and attract people to our brand tree over any other.

That starts with knowing our brand DNA. If we’re growing Northern Spies on our apple tree, we’re not interested in appealing to people who want eating apples. We want to talk to the bakers of the world. And we want to tell them about why the DNA of our brand apple makes it the superior choice over, say, the Cortland apples the brand tree next door is peddling.

It’s the same with the Warby Parkers and Caspers of the world. Warby Parker caught people’s attention because it was different. It seemed to offer a solution—or a revolution—to the traditional way of doing things. With Gen Z—the first digital native generation—arriving on the scene, the idea that shopping online makes you some kind of “rebel” or futurist is pretty laughable. Gen Z has always shopped online; they don’t know the “traditional” way of doing things.

What about hipster brews, kombucha, and craft beers? Like online shopping, what started as a fringe trend that spoke to a few “early adopters,” has become so mainstreamed that there’s no difference anymore. Everyone and their brother has a craft beer brand. What was different is now the same—which will inevitably lead to people shunning it in favour of something that does buck the trend.

So, what does that mean for Marketers? It means we shouldn’t be chasing the “hip” or trendy brand identity of the moment. It will wedge us into a space where we can’t effectively compete, first because the market’s crowded and second, because that’s not in our DNA.

More than anything, what the rise of the blands shows us is that we must cultivate our own unique identities, through thick and thin. That’s what’s going to set us up for marketing success—by setting us apart. Striving to be ourselves will make our customers want to join us—and stick with us. And, with a little luck, we’ll be the ones leading the next wave, leaving imitators in our wake.

So, as always—remember to start with the why!


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I am a business person who has excelled in driving a competitive edge through marketing, strategy, innovation, building irresistible brands and unlocking the genius that exists. I am writing is inspire or create new consideration. If you have ideas or questions that you would like me to put a pen too, I would be delighted.

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