Harvard’s Moon: Ignore Your Critics to Win


New Orleans — If you want to set yourself
apart from the herd, embrace your negatives,
ignore your critics, and, above all,
don’t listen to your customers.

So said Harvard Business School’s Youngme
Moon during a lively opening session on
day two of the CTAM Summit.

If it wasn’t exactly a touchy-feely paean
to the dogged determination of the American
business community to super-serve customers,
her talk 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 have
pounded every product and service into a remarkable

“And what’s perplexing is everyone …
cares so deeply about diff erentiation. They’re
not only committed to it, they are somewhat
obsessed with it. It’s all they want to talk
about,” she said. “And yet … all I see around
me is sameness.”

Case in point: shopping for new furniture.
It is a task consumers avoid because all
around them are similar looking furniture
retailers off ering 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,” Moon said.

“It is a classic case of the cure devolving
into the disease,” she added.

Companies that have truly caught fire,
that have energized consumers and inspired
rabid brand loyalty, are ones that say no to
their customers, Moon said.

Some examples:

Ikea. “A trip to Ikea can be an enormous
hassle. 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 “refuses to give its customers
benefits that its competitors routinely
give their customers.”

The Mini Cooper. 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 the entire marketing
campaign for the Mini Cooper emphasized
its tiny size.

Apple. “Apple’s willingness to forge an independent
path almost necessitates that it be
willing to ignore what the world is telling it to
do,” Moon said of the iPod and iPad originator.

Twitter. “The thing that the critics laughed
at the most was the 140-character limit.” But
it is precisely that small-bite approach to news
and social networking that has made the difference,
catapulting the company into the
Zeitgeist in a few short years.

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

Marisa Guthrie is programming editor of B&C.