Originality Is Overrated

A couple of years ago I heard an executive from Quorn speak at a conference.

Normally talks like these are just boring propaganda pieces, but his was usually thoughtful and candid.  One point he made that stuck with me was that whilst people, in general, are eating less meat, pure veganism isn’t actually growing.  Quite interesting coming from a brand like Quorn, and very much against the anecdotal grain you hear from brands at the moment.

What I particularly enjoyed however was his barely disguised frustration with the emergence of brands such as Beyond Meat and the Impossible Burger.

His complaint?

That those two have somehow done the impossible: they’ve tricked millions of people into believing they invented the veggie burger.

Of course, they don’t call what they make “veggie burgers”, because that would give the game away.  Instead, they use product differentiation and terms like “fake meat” or “plant-based meat”.  But let’s face it, the distinction is a bit potato-potahto – and that’s certainly what the Quorn guy thought, who was understandably annoyed that these brands were gathering untold hype and capital on the back of ideas which Quorn, Linda McCartney, and various others had been doing without fanfare for decades.

(I know some will take issue with this, and claim that these brands have brought something fresh to the table (“they bleed!” etc.), but really that’s just old fashioned USP stuff.  The larger point is that they are occupying the same market space – meat free burgers, sausages, etc. – and that is demonstrably nothing new.)

Brands like this are, I think, pretty interesting.

What they’ve achieved is something close to alchemy: where they’ve taken an old tired idea, relaunched it, and made everyone believe it’s something fresh and exciting.

They aren’t the only ones by any means. Oatly, for example, didn’t invent oat milk; but so far as the man on the street is concerned they might as well have. Another one is Huel – who are, let’s face it, just a trendy Slimfast.

Such brands prove you don’t have to be original in order to make people believe you’re original.  They show that true innovation is perhaps overrated; and that there might be more legs in pre-existing ideas than in dazzling new ones.

So how did they do it?

The answer is rearticulation.

How you articulate an idea is the way you describe and present it.  The way you make it make sense to people. Every idea has multiple possible articulations, and each one has the potential to make the penny drop with a different audience.

When you rearticulate an idea, you simply describe it using a different vocabulary. You frame it differently. And in doing this, you make it new.

A good example of this is the trend of mindfulness that has swept the world in the last decade or two.

There is nothing original about the content of mindfulness of course. It isn’t a new invention, and doesn’t claim to be. It is instead a new framing for various ancient ideas which weren’t clicking with most people in their prior guises. Just like fake meat, it’s an old idea made new through clever repackaging.

As you can see, rearticulating old ideas is a pretty profitable strategy. In fact, you might argue that it’s even better than being truly original, since the ideas are pre-tested. They’ve been proven to work for some people, so it’s quite probable they’ll work for others too. I remember around the turn of the millennium that there was a trend for converting Shakespeare plays into teen movies. What a great idea. No need to think of a new story; just steal from the best and dress it in a different outfit. It worked for The Lion King, and it worked for them too.

As the likes of Oatly show, there’s a lot potential for building brands in the rearticulation technique.  All you really need to do is:

  1. Identify a stale product category that has faded in the public consciousness, or which appeals only to a niche set of consumers
  2. Connect that product with a new audience or culture who might in principle be interested in it under a different guise
  3. Then simply rearticulate it for them; put it in their language

The key factor is the weak / limited articulation of the original concept. You couldn’t play this game with, say, gyms, because the root idea is too popular and well understood – you’d have to genuinely innovate instead. But you could perhaps play it with something like Weight Watchers, which represents a solid core idea with very hard limits on its appeal in its current guise.  (After writing this I checked, and yes, a brand called Noom is already attacking this one with their product differentiation).

So bottom line, perhaps originality is overrated. Perhaps there is more value in expanding the reach of existing ideas than there is in coming up with new ones.

Just because something’s out there already, doesn’t mean it’s truly arrived.

And that means the next big thing is probably already here.  Someone just needs to steal it.

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