Being Different

March 9, 2012

I was running errands around town the other day, listening to my iPod, when an old Freakonomics podcast came up in the rotation. Titled “Hey Baby, Is That A Prius You’re Driving?”, it discussed the trendiness of environmentalism in certain communities, and how folks choose their brand and style of car as a way to visually demonstrate their green bona fides.

The entire episode was a good listen, but what really caught my attention was the mention (beginning around 15:13) that the Toyota company deliberately intended to make the Prius car completely different from all other cars in order to send the signal to consumers that this hybrid car was something special.

“They didn’t care what it looked like, so long as it looked different.”

While that’s a significant statement to a designer, “we don’t care what it looks like,” one that most designers would view with a significant amount of skepticism, it does point directly to an important part of branding: how you set yourself apart from your competitors. But there are finer points to that concept that should be addressed.

First, it helps to actually be different. It’s an advertising cliche that companies are always pushing their products as being “new and improved,” but consumers are not so easily fooled and will quickly figure out if you’re just selling the same, old product. The difference you’re pushing may just be psychological, in the sense that your product makes customers feel better about themselves than a competing product, but that’s still a difference. Consider that iPod or iPhone that you own and question whether the product itself works much better than any other mp3 player or smartphone. Chances are you like these products just because they’re ‘cool’.

Second, you shouldn’t be different just to be different. People might be intrigued by the flashy, new thing, but they’re also drawn to things they know, and the comfort of maintaining routines. If you’re trying to convince somebody to try something new, you need to convince them that the change benefits them in some way. In the case of the Prius, car owners might have been excited by an opportunity to drive a more environment-friendly vehicle, but they weren’t going to jump onto the hybrid bandwagon unless they were sure that they would still be able to drive 65 on the freeway. It takes more than a good idea, or a good cause, to get people to change significant portions of their lifestyle.

Third, you don’t want to be too different. No matter how great your product is, people will be wary of trying it out if it sets them too far apart from their friends and family. We are pack animals at heart and often don’t want to risk standing out, for fear of appearing foolish. Consider the case of the Segway, that “people mover” that resembled a stand-up, three-wheeled golf cart. Despite all the convenience and efficiency that the product promised for people who would otherwise be walking or biking, the public ultimately couldn’t get past the oddness of Segway riders, and stuck to methods of transportation that were more physically taxing.

So while its crucial to differentiate yourself, to rely upon more than just randomness to be successful, seeking those differences must be done with careful consideration, even when those differences come naturally, or even in your own mind.