Sometimes Strategic Differentiation Doesn’t Have To Be Smart, Just Different
A rotting lion carcass, being devoured by bees.
I was surprised to learn the other day that this is what is depicted on the logo of Lyle’s Golden Syrup. Not exactly what most would consider appetising, but it does have a certain logic to it. The origin lies in the Biblical tale of Samson, who killed a lion, and on returning to its body a few days later found that bees had made a hive within it. From the hive he collected honey, and later posed the following riddle to his dinner guests:
“Out of the eater, something to eat; out of the strong, something sweet.” (Judges 14:14)
In the razor-sharp logic of branding, this basically translates to “dead lion = sweet stuff”, and so really what better subject could there possibly be for the Golden Syrup logo?
I learned this interesting curio from an old colleague Paddy Gilmore (who now runs marketing consultancy Destination Yes), who was extolling the virtues of brands being just plain weird.
This is a point I’ve made numerous times in the past, as strategic weirdness is crucial to making a business idiosyncratic, difficult to copy, and interesting. What I liked about Paddy’s point, however, was that unstrategic weirdness can also be extremely powerful. In other words yes, it’s great to be weird in a manner that serves a wider strategy – but it’s also great to be weird with no strategic positioning logic underpinning it whatsoever.
The key example in question was that of Tetley’s tea bags. In 1989 they decided – for no apparent reason – to make their bags round rather than the traditional square. This didn’t serve any functional benefit, and as such was dismissed by their competitors. And yet, pointless or not, sales rose; culminating in Tetley becoming the market leader.
The reason is pretty obvious: weirdness is distinctive, sticks in the mind, and thus makes the brand easier to buy. Perhaps consumers even convinced themselves there was a benefit to this randomness. People love to rationalise their choices, as we know. But either way, it worked: unstrategic differentiation did the same job that strategic differentiation would do.
Considering this, we might well wonder if it would be worthwhile to randomly weirdify our own brand? If it’s as simple as Tetley made it look, then it would be a no-brainer. However, there is one note of caution I would raise about this.
There are not only two kinds of action (strategic and unstrategic), but three:
Unstrategic action is simply an action that doesn’t follow any particular strategy. It is basically, like Tetley’s round bags, meaningless. Anti-strategic action on the other hand isn’t meaningless; it is an action that drags the business in a particular strategic direction that isn’t congruent with the business as a whole.
For example, imagine if instead of the round bags, Tetley had instead decided to, I don’t know, sell teabags individually. An action like this, while also weird, is not like the round bags because it has meaning. It actually changes the value proposition of the business. Assuming that it changes it in a way the business didn’t intend, it isn’t just unstrategic, it’s anti-strategic, and thus can be expected to have a negative rather than positive effect.
The power of any brand is determined by its congruence – by how coherently it is about “one thing” – and thus if you are building weirdness into your business you have to make sure that it either:
- Enhances that congruence (i.e. is strategic), or…
- …is completely meaningless, and neither enhances nor damages the congruence (i.e. unstrategic)
This second option – what Tetley did – is a trickier tightrope to walk than it first appears, so clearly I would always favour option a.
However, in the absence of a strong strategy (the default position for most businesses), it’s pretty smart and effective, so I would encourage you to give it some thought.
There’s one thing you can be sure of: your competitors are probably not having discussions about how they can be more purposelessly weird. So that’s an edge. And any edge is great if you can get it.