The most powerful market force nobody talks about

The other day on Twitter, a chap asked a perfectly reasonable question:

“Zoom is now worth $130B and I still don’t know what their moat is. Brand?”

His question is a variation of the critique that has been put to many a founder when seeking investment. “What’s to stop someone coming and copying you?”.  The answer, of course, is typically “nothing”.

However, despite these rational fears, businesses being killed – or even significantly dented – by copycats is a surprisingly rare thing.  It is quite common for a business to have a good idea, fail to get traction with it, and then be gazumped by a late-arriving competitor.  But what doesn’t happen typically is a business getting traction and then being displaced.  If you’re the one to make an idea work, then it’s yours for the long run – clones be damned.

The reason for this is simple, but often disregarded:


If there’s one adjective we can safely apply to consumers, or indeed the market itself, it’s laziness.  People want to think and change as little as possible – making a mockery of all the “things are changing faster than ever before” propaganda we’re surrounded with.  Most stuff barely changes at all.

We are encouraged to believe that everybody’s going about their lives constantly trying to “optimise” – seeking out ever more refined, thrilling, and brilliant solutions for ever more banal and non-existent problems.  This optimistic fantasy is the breeding ground for arguably the majority of startup ideas – and as it’s a fantasy, it also ensures the majority of failures.

In the real world what happens is this: people find an adequate solution to a given problem, and then never think about it ever again.  They desire nothing more than to remove a certain category completely from their thoughts, and consign it indefinitely to the zombie autopilot part of their brain, freeing themselves up for more pressing issues.

The genius of Zoom is simply to be the first adequate video conferencing service.  That’s it. That’s all they needed to do to gain a grip on the market which is going to be very tricky for others to shift. Millions of users have now ticked the video conferencing box in their mind, filed it away, and are hoping never to revisit it ever again. (The timing of corona has obviously helped as well).

I guess you could argue that, to the original tweeter’s point, this is “brand” – and in a strict sense that’s true.  But it doesn’t mean that the given company needs to have what people typically understand to be a “great brand”.  On the contrary, it’s in such a company’s interests to have a brand that is as unobtrusive as possible; that allows them to passively become part of the fabric of life.

A company that gets this right can become effectively impossible to shift; especially in non-tech spaces.  Take Colgate, say.  Short of a complete revolution in the understanding of dental hygiene, or a historic episode of corporate malfeasance, nothing is going to shift them from a dominant position in the toothpaste world.  Ever.

Now it would be nice of course if we could all profit from inertia in this way – but unfortunately, the most powerful application of the force is only available to a select few brands: those who provide the first acceptable option in a distinct category.

Chances are you aren’t in this boat, though it can happen.  My client Bio-tiful Dairy claimed this position in the kefir category.  They weren’t the first kefir by any means, just as Zoom weren’t the first video conferencing service – but they were the first acceptable one.  This has made them very difficult to budge despite an onslaught from copycat competitors.

As mentioned above, my advice, if you are lucky enough to be in such a position, is – counterintuitively – to present yourself in a fairly bland, safe, “passe-partout” kind of way.

This is against my standard advice.  Normally I encourage brands to be as outlandish and interesting as possible, but this is based on the assumption that most cannot use inertia to their advantage (they are trying to break inertia instead).  However, for the beneficiaries of inertia the opposite is true.  Your job is to represent the center-ground; to be the generic middle that differentiated competitors orbit around.  And this means playing it pretty straight.

Nice work if you can get it!

As for the rest of us, brands who represent “spins” on pre-existing categories, the only way we can make inertia work for us is to fight it as hard as we can.  By being as distinctive and radical as possible we give ourselves a chance not only to wake consumers from their slumber but to create our own centre of gravity, which will in time benefit from its own inertia.  Brands that we typically think of as “great brands” are those who’ve done this.  They have captured an army of inert zombie purchasers due to the power of their positioning as opposed to claiming the centre ground.

Regardless of which brand positioning camp you fall into, recognise that either way inertia is a force to be accepted and embraced.  Accept that, generally, people don’t give a shit and only want to be left alone.  And embrace that fact, by helping them, by and by, to never think about your category ever again – because you’ve resolved it for them.

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