Different: escaping the competitive herd (a book review)

One of the speakers pulled out of BoS2010 a couple of weeks ago, leaving a gap in the schedule that I’ve been trying to fill since. For me, the best speakers at previous years have been those who’ve left my brain throbbing gently by the end of their talk. People like Geoffrey Moore, Don Norman, Seth Godin and Jennifer Aaker. I’ve been trying to think of somebody – they’re often substantial academics and great communicators – who could fill that slot. I’ve been struggling.

Then I stumbled across Different: Escaping the Competitive Herd by Youngme Moon.

I picked it up expecting a book like all other business books. It would have, I thought, a single idea that would have made a good essay. That idea would be padded out to 200 pages, because that’s the length business books have to be. It would include examples from WL Gore, Whole Foods, Best Buy and South West airlines. It would have a coherent set of principles and a checklist I could follow to help improve my business. It would probably do those things exceptionally well.

It didn’t.

It totally under-delivered.

But it doesn’t matter.

Why doesn’t that matter? Because it surprised me in so many other ways. It’s not a traditional business book – it’s a mashup between a business book and a reflective essay. It meanders between marketing and philosophy, spending as much time discussing what it means to live in the modern world as how to build brands. As you’d expect, Youngme talks about Google and Apple (how could a book that talks about brands that insult their customers, polarise consumers and revolutionise product categories fail to mention Apple?). Less expectedly – but still within the category of ‘business book’ she’s careful to keep one foot in – she writes beautifully and conversationally about Mini, Marmite, Red Bull and BAPE. But she also talks about Richard Feynman, the Onion and the Fonz. She even uses the word ‘motherfucker’ once. How many business books do that?

Youngme’s thesis is that the way businesses are taught to compete is flawed. We’re encouraged to talk to our customers and add the new features they demand. We examine our competitors, figure out where they’re better than us and then we copy them. We find out what our weaknesses are, and fix them. We repeat, repeat, repeat, stuck on a treadmill of incremental innovation as we try to become better, faster, cleaner, cheaper, tastier – whatever it is that our customers tell us they want. The end result is entire product categories (bottled water, shampoo, detergent, cars, beer, operating systems, accounting software) stuffed with thousands of near-identical, micro-differentiated products that nobody can tell apart.

Youngme thinks there’s a better way. She believes that the way to compete isn’t by being better. It’s by being different. The products and brands that people love are those that fail to give us what we expect, but which then surprise us in some other way. They refuse to be judged on the same axes as their competitors. They change our perception of what a product ought to do. Sometimes, they insult us. They cultivate their enemies as much as they nurture their friends. They’re flawed, and they shout about their flaws to whoever will listen. They polarise. They refuse to be bland.

Youngme doesn’t pretend this book is complete. Some of its ideas are tentative, and it has flaws. But rather than pretend those imperfections don’t exist, she embraces them. Youngme describes Different as a ‘leaky, leaky boat’. It takes what could be a weakness – its lack of absoluteness – and turns it into a tremendous strength. Sure, the book is ambiguous, its arguments aren’t perfect and it offers few conclusions. But that’s what the real world is like.

There’s no way I can summarise this wonderful book in a single review. Go buy yourself a copy.

Youngme Moon is speaking at Business of Software 2010. There are still a few tickets left. Book now!