Fit in to stand out

I have been guilty, I realise, of giving brands two conflicting pieces of advice:

  1. You should stand out
  2. You should fit in

You should stand out, of course, in order to lower competitive pressure, be noticed, and claim market territory.  But you should also fit in, because this enables you to borrow certain well established “codes” in order to be quickly understood.  For instance, everyone instinctively understands that the colour green and using a leaf in your logo means “environmentally friendly”.  Therefore if that’s how you want to be seen, it makes sense to adopt characteristics like that, even if they aren’t original.

The fact is that whilst I and other talk a big game about being outlandish and punchy, it is also very important to be seen as familiar and comfortable.  As something that seems to “make sense”.  If you are truly original you may stand out, but you will be hard to understand as you won’t be leaning on any prior knowledge embedded in the consumer’s head.

So how can we do this?  How can we square this circle and be familiar, but also stand out at the same time?

The answer is to seek to fit in, but with a different category than the one you occupy.

A friend of mine (thanks Greg) recently brought up a great example of this with Dominoes Pizza, who, he observed, look very little like a pizza parlour, but look a lot like delivery company such as FedEx, or UPS.  By doing this they are able to tap into our mental shortcuts, our pre-existing understanding, and thus seem familiar and safe – whist also being entirely unlike any of their competitors.  They look like something we know; just not something we know in this context.

If Dominoes was a delivery company it would be boring.  But as a pizza brand, it is exciting.

Now of course, when it comes to choosing which alternative category you’re going to fit in with, you can’t just pick anything.  You have to pick a category where your value proposition, your strategy, is the standard.

As we know the essence of a strong brand strategy is to offer a value that other people in your category don’t offer.  This is non-negotiable.  However, that doesn’t mean that this value proposition won’t be common in other categories.  Categories where your value proposition (or something like it) is the norm will have done a great job in establishing norms and cliches associated with that idea – norms that you can copy to communicate your position quickly and effectively.

In the case of Dominoes, this link is obvious.  They are a business built entirely around delivery expertise – not food.  Nobody buys into them for an “authentic Italian experience”.  Instead, they want the machine – fast, ruthlessly efficient, reliable, ubiquitous.  As a result it’s strategically smart for them to adopt the “flavour” of a delivery company.

Look around: either by design or because those who do it accidentally are more likely to succeed, this technique is extremely common.  It’s a bit of a game you can play yourself – think of brands that really stand out in their categories, and see if there are any other categories where they’d blend in.

A classic one was the revolutionary launch of the original iMac.  Do you remember how radical that was?  Those colourful plastic balls landing like aliens in a sea of grey boxes.  Now let’s think about this, what was the core proposition of the iMac?  In one word: friendliness.  This was the computer anyone could use, and could have fun using.  A computer not for the geeks, but for everyone else.  Now what categories have “friendly fun” as the norm?  I’d venture toys and candy.  And sure enough, wasn’t that basically what the iMac looked like?  It wasn’t just a question of the colour – you might recall that they also had handles on the top.  These were completely pointless: the weight wasn’t distributed so you could carry with them, and even if it was, why on earth would you be carrying around a desktop computer?  But that wasn’t the idea.  The idea, according to jobs, was that the handle made it look friendly.  It looked like something a kid might pull out of their toy box.  Or something designed for a baby to grab onto.  It looked like their proposition.

I absolutely love that.

Try it yourself.  Analyse a couple of your favourites.  It’s pretty eye-opening when you find something this simple under the hood of supposedly sophisticated businesses.

You’ll also find, in spite of last week’s piece, that perhaps copying isn’t so bad after all.  We just need to be smart in choosing what we copy.  We need to recognise that our “brother and sister” brands are not those in our category (that’s irrelevant); they are those with the same philosophy, and playing the same game, whatever category they might occupy.

Copy them, and the needle can be threaded, of both standing out, and fitting in.

Get weekly articles that will enable you to see things others don’t. 

Connect with Alex on Linkedin for daily ideas and discussion


Thank You

Check your inbox for your first mail.