CTAM Summit: Harvard's Moon Says Ignore Your Critics


Complete coverage of CTAM Summit 2010

New Orleans -- If you want to differentiate yourself from the herd, embrace your negatives, ignore your critics and above all, don't listen to your customers.

That was the takeaway from Harvard Business School's Youngme Moon during a lively opening session on day two of the CTAM Summit. And if it wasn't exactly a touchy-feely paean to the dogged determination of the American business community to super-serve customers, it offered food for thought for a CTAM community that also prizes creativity.

The incredible array of choices available to consumers, Moon asserted, and the drive of businesses to stay hyper-competitive, has pounded every product and service into a remarkable "sameness."

Youngme Moon

"And what's perplexing," said Moon, "is everyone ... cares so deeply about differentiation. They're not only committed to it. They are somewhat obsessed with it. It's all they want to talk about. And yet ... all I see around me is sameness."

Moon offered a case study: shopping for new furniture. It is a task consumers avoid because all around them are similarly looking furniture retailers offering an enormous yet similar selection of sofas and dining room tables and homogenous services (free delivery, lifetime guarantee). This creates dissonance.

"You find yourself resenting the burden that you're going to be stuck with a living room set for the rest of your life ... you surround your customers with helpful benefits and they complain about those benefits," said Moon. "It is a classic case of the cure devolving into the disease."

The companies that have truly caught fire, that have energized consumers, and inspired rabid brand loyalty are those companies that say no to their customers, said Moon. Like Ikea.

"A trip to Ikea can be an enormous hassle," observed Moon. "There is very little stylistic differentiation. Good luck finding sales people at Ikea." And then there is the "monumental" task of putting the store's furniture together when you get home.

Ikea, adds Moon, "refuses to give its customers benefits that its competitors routinely give their customers."

And yet, it is the discount furniture retailer with an "army" of loyal customers.

The Mini Cooper is another study in reverse marketing psychology. It was introduced eight years ago, before the economic recession and the implosion of the U.S. auto industry, when monster gas-guzzlers were still flying off car dealer lots. And yet, far from attempting to disguise or divert potential customers' attention from the car's diminutive dimensions, the entire marketing campaign for the Mini Cooper emphasized its tiny size.

And there are stalwart examples of this reverse-psychology approach to building brands among media companies. Apple, which Moon (correctly) asserted is among the most "arrogant" companies to burn up the NASDAQ.

"Apple's willingness to forge an independent path almost necessitates that it be willing to ignore what the world is telling it to do," said Moon.

And Twitter.

"The thing that the critics laughed at the most was the 140-character limit," she said.

But it was precisely that small-bite approach to news and social networking that has differentiated Twitter, catapulting the company into the Zeitgeist in a few short years.

Another example: Google's advertising platform. It completely eliminates the possibility for creativity; no images, static font and color. But it is precisely those limitations, says Moon, that "allowed Google to build an advertising platform simpler, more flexible and more powerful than any advertising platform on earth."

"If you want to be different," said Moon, "you must be willing to ignore your critics and in some cases your customers too."

For an ever-fractioning media industry captive to the tyranny of minute-by-minute ratings and increasingly sophisticated ethnographic, psychographic and demographic data and instant access to customer feedback, it is a bold challenge.