Any discussions surrounding the intricacies of marketing eventually fall around the theory that to truly be a leader, you must have the courage and creativity to step outside of the box. Staying in the box implies playing within the boundaries. Reshma H. Shah believes it is best if you think about the theory a little broader. The “box,” from Shah’s perspective, really is your brand’s leadership. The person or people pulling the strings.
Shah, associate professor in the practice of marketing at the Emory University Goizueta Business School in Atlanta, says that stepping or thinking or removing a brand from the box it was placed in is all about the collective assumptions, models and boundaries of its leadership. If an organization wants to go beyond incremental growth and end up with transformational outcomes that result in disruptive growth, leadership must be willing to break down walls.
“These walls hold in old assumptions about consumers, competitors and even the company itself,” Shah says. “In order to do this, you have to turn the challenge or issue on its head and look at it from a different perspective. This often requires new people joining the organization who are not yet engulfed in the current level of risk-taking culture within that organization.”
THERE’S LOTS OF COMPETITION AND CHANGE, SO YOU HAVE TO DO SOMETHING NOT ONLY DIFFERENT, BUT EFFECTIVE TO STAND OUT.”
— BRAD KUGLER, FOUNDER/CEO, DIRECTMAIL2.0
While the reasons a brand succumbs to the “in-the-box” thinking vary from brand to brand, too many, especially large, multinational ones, do it out of fear. The fear of being different from what is considered the norm in their industries. The fear of being exposed by others—customers, the press, employees and other stakeholders. The fear of being too radical.
The truth of the matter, in the simplest of terms, is that seeing things and acting differently are the tenets of creating something distinctive—a blueprint that you never considered. Shah says your brand can present a competitive advantage simply by implying four things about your resources and capabilities: Your advantage is valuable, rare, non-imitable and sustainable.
“You could meet the first two criteria,” Shah says, “But in today’s world of instant information accessibility and transfer of knowledge, imitation—especially among lookalikes and fake brands is rampant. That alone makes your sustainability unstable. If you are able to see into the future—looking forward 10-20 years and being bold enough to make wild predictions that higher ups can agree upon—you’re more likely to not have to compete with anyone.”
Innovation + Innovating =Success
While being bold may be the most effective way to differentiate yourself from the others, it is a strategy many brands are leery of making. Still, Brad Kugler believes it is worth the effort. The CEO of DirectMail2.0 did just that when he founded the white-label software company in 2017 that seamlessly integrates digital services with traditional direct mail. By adding services like mail tracking, call tracking and Google follow-up, DirectMail2.0 stepped out of the box to offer a strategy that showed results.
“There’s lots of competition and change, so you have to do something not only different, but effective to stand out,” Kugler says. “Consumers have more choices and more ways to discover those choices, so it’s vital you never stop innovating, whether you’re a brand, service or product.”
And sure, while it may be easier to follow the leader, Kugler says today’s fickle consumers always move on to the next shiny object. So, why not be that shiny object? “If you are being innovative and daring, you will be noticed. Does it come with a cost? There is a risk, and with risk comes the possibility of failure. Be innovative. Test, test, test, which will help mitigate risk and avoid a colossal failure. Work with people who think differently from you. If everyone is in lockstep with your mindset, it might be easier as a company, but you will most likely miss something, an opportunity to think outside the box.”
While it has been said a million times over, it warrants repeating that in the war for attention, everything in a consumer’s life competes with everything else. And while everyone gets burned out by it, Michael Cruz believes that superior creativity is directly connected to effectiveness as an outcome. A partner and head of content at strategy, creative and content boutique Summer Friday, says brands that take the time to think hard about how to make a small difference in the day tend to earn the right to make a case for consideration.
“It’s a consumer’s world; we just live in it,” Cruz says. “Everything is a remix. Nothing is now new and never can be again. And that’s okay. All of the ways in how a brand defines its own unique identity is really just a different mix of color, form, message, tone, visual narrative, experience design and so many other facets, than other brands. But please do try to find a point of difference. Your audience will appreciate you for it.”
And while the theory is bantered about often, Cruz believes that by embracing discomfort, you give yourself more options. The key is to understand what space in consumers’ minds you have permission to occupy and what things are happening in their lives that can be opportunities. “By being 100% consumer-centric in their mindset, brands often find new ways that are likely going to be difficult to achieve but nothing worth doing is ever easy. Walk a mile in your audience’s shoes. You’ll be surprised what you find out. Never lose sight of what makes you special and find new ways to keep conveying that. People remember stories, so tell a very good one.”
If you are keen to stay relevant in your customers’ eyes, you will be able to follow the trends needed to find and engage with new ones. In the end, it all comes down to the brand and what path it is willing to take. Some brands are built around innovation, continually seeking what’s next, so their positions at the vanguard are expected. Others may see decline in an older segment and have to refresh their approach to keep up. And some want to be perceived as cutting edge because their competitors are beating them to the punch.
“There are many reasons why a brand follows the leader,” Cruz says. “But unless your brand is true to its core values, it will be seen as disingenuous and deliver an empty promise. Wherever you choose to activate, you should be framing your value proposition in a way that’s true to the space.”
THERE ARE MANY REASONS WHY A BRAND FOLLOWS THE LEADER, “BUT UNLESS YOUR BRAND IS TRUE TO ITS CORE VALUES, IT WILL BE SEEN AS DISINGENUOUS AND DELIVER AN EMPTY PROMISE.”
— MICHAEL CRUZ, PARTNER/HEAD OF CONTENT, SUMMER FRIDAY
If you surround yourself with your customers and the way they interact in and around your market, your branding will follow the path it needs to take—with you leading.
APRIL 2022 – Priorities Magazine