Break invisible rules – the easiest way to stand out

Nobody likes to think of themselves as a follower. A sheep. As someone who slavishly adheres to the rules and behaviours set by everyone else. A herd animal, mindlessly marching in step with the crowd, never thinking for themselves.

But the truth is, we all are.

Even the most outrageous rebel will, on 99 metrics out of 100, conform to the norms of everyone else. David Bowie still brushed his teeth (I assume). Stanley Kubrick still made movies with a beginning, middle, and end. Ultimately no matter who you are, it still makes sense to follow the crowd most of the time, because they’re doing things which have been proven to work, and there’s no sense in changing.

Needless to say the same thing applies in business. Every category has a series of norms, which all brands within it slavishly follow, and much of the time for very good reason.

It’s a norm, for example, for soap to smell nice – and probably a decent one. By all means you could make soap which smelled horrible, to be a bit of a rebel, and get a bit of standout. But it would probably be pretty self-defeating. A nice smell, or at least the absence of bad smell, is probably a necessary norm in that category; one which probably doesn’t need to be challenged.

However, not all norms are like that.

Some norms are indeed almost completely arbitrary. There are rules companies follow for no other reason than that everyone else follows them – rules that become so embedded in their categories that they become almost invisible. People adhere to them without even realising they’re doing so, so they cease to be active choices, and become simply the default setting which nobody thinks to question.

Norms like this are huge opportunities for brand differentiation.

If you can spot a universal, but completely arbitrary norm in any category, you’ve stumbled on a golden ticket. Subverting unnecessary norms is by far the easiest way to stand out, and deliver texture and unique value to a category. It’s basically a shortcut to effective strategy, and so is something which every business should search for as one of its first ports of call.

A perfect illustration of this can be found with cleaning brand Method.

Method spotted an arbitrary norm, which had been accepted without question by all cleaning product brands for decades – a norm which they promptly subverted, and in doing so found an effortless path through the market.

This norm was the norm of making cleaning products look aggressive, powerful, and ugly. If you look at this parade of brands here you’ll see what I mean:

Although all these brands are supposedly distinct from each other, they’re all of a “type” with little brand differentiation. Brash primary colours, pack swooshes flashes and bangs, shouty typefaces, and generally a concerted effort to communicate their destructive qualities.

Now despite there being some logic to this approach, there’s no reason to think that it’s essential to the category. It’s just something all the brands adhered to without thinking; probably without even realising they were doing it. Method simply noticed this, and asked the obvious question “what if we were to make cleaning products that are elegant and beautiful instead?”. What if we treated them as products to be displayed on the kitchen shelf, not hidden under the sink?

The result of that thought experiment can be seen in the image below – and also in their big-money sale to SC Johnson.

With hindsight what Method did all seems so obvious, so basic – but in reality seeing what has become invisible to people in a category is extremely difficult. That’s why it’s often outsiders who have to introduce these new perspectives. If you’ve been in a category too long, spotting the arbitrary norms can become near impossible.

One category I’ve always thought adheres to such a norm – which so far nobody has addressed – is that of condiments (ketchup, mayonnaise, jams, marmalades, etc.). Within that world there exists this peculiar obsession with being seen to make your products “properly”, or the “traditional way”; a mentality reflected in a swathe of brands who are all trying to look as old as possible, like something Phileas Fogg would have enjoyed.

Although there’s nothing wrong with this per se, it’s hardly essential for the category, and leaves open a huge gap for someone to come along with improper condiments; ones which are made the way they shouldn’t be made.

This is just one example off the top of my head: the point is that these norms exist everywhere, and if you can spot them, then you will suddenly find a clear path to adding value to your market.

So have a look. Step back from your category and try to see it through an outsider’s eyes – or better still through the eyes of someone who’s never even heard of the category. What norms do you see? Make a list of them. Then, analyse that list, and ask “are these really necessary?”. Would a product that didn’t adhere to this be flawed or useless?

There’s a decent chance that via this process you’ll eventually spot something which nobody has spotted before – something so obvious that you’ll feel embarrassed to even realise it.

And that’s when you know you’re onto a winner.


This piece was written for the fantastic organisation Young Foodies, for whom I am the preferred strategy partner.  Young Foodies are a community that links the UK’s most exciting new food and drink brands – if you’re vaguely connected to that space, I strongly encourage you to check them out.

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