There is a line in the Wild One when Marlon Brando's character is asked "What are you rebelling against Johnny?" With a dismissive curl of his lip Brando/Johnny sneers:
That's the famous line. The one I prefer is when one of the rebel biker gang asks a local in the bar:
"What do you hicks do around here for kicks?"
"Oh,…The roses grow. People get married. Crazy as anyplace else."
Crazy as anyplace else. Now there's the rub.
Often I meet with clients who agree with everything I say about being authentic; being The One & Only™. They nod and agree. "Yup, that's what we're all about. We're The One & Only™ alright. That's us…yessiree Bob"
Then they tell me what they are doing to promote themselves to make the most of their distinctive qualities. "Well, we kind of match our competition because that's how things are done in this category." Lockstep. It is then I realise that our paths have come to a parting ways.
The roses grow. People get married, Crazy as anyplace else.
Now, I'm not suggesting that my clients don black leather jackets and start cruising around causing trouble on vintage Harleys and Triumphs. Well, not necessarily. Unless that is exactly who they are.
The problem is fear.
One of the most irrational fears I have encountered is the fear of being judged by competitors.
Why on Earth should you care about what your competitors think of you? Believe me, this anxiety is very real. I have seen it in all kinds of businesses. Chiropractors and health providers fear sticking their heads above the parapet. Manufacturers worry that trade customers will isolate them. Advertising creative people fear they will not be cool enough to fit in at the next agency they work in.
The anxiety of industries and market categories is the product of an unspoken oligopoly. The dominant brand in the category sets the tone and the rest fall in line and pick up the scraps.
It is a self defeating, self limiting perception that the order of the day will remain the order of the day.
So long as this belief is accepted as the norm, then innovation is stifled, risk taking is non existent. The status quo might as well gift a virtual, self fulfilling monopoly to the Alpha brand.
I don't advocate reckless practices. On the contrary. Brando's character may have been a rebel without a cause, but you have to be a rebel with a cause.
The risk of truly being yourself and taking the time to understand how you can break free of the conventions of the market is quite a mission. It never ends. The rewards are distinctive products and services that competitors cannot emulate and, if they do, they seem like frauds (and consume their resources trying to be you).
Honesty and authenticity are highly prized by audiences. Watch American Idol and see how many talented Mariah Carey soundalikes fall by the wayside (there is already a Mariah Carey) - Fantasia Barrino won the last series. She wasn't the prettiest or even the most technically excellent performer in the competition - but she was far and away the most distinctive. That much was obvious from the moment she began singing the Gershwin tune Summertime from Porgy & Bess. " Schhummertime...". One of the undeniable truths of the Idol shows is: that making a warm, human connection with the audience, having a great story is just as important and being able to sing. Doing things well is just what kevin Roberts of Saatchi & Saatchi calls 'table stakes'.
By virtue of the experience curve the processes get easier and grant your organisation more freedom and flexibility to perform without anxiety about what competitors think.
Or you can hide yourself away, pick at the scraps, grow roses - be as crazy as the next guy.
That distant, rolling thunder you hear. It might be distant rolling thunder or it might be your introduction to what Tom Peters calls 'A brawl with no rules'. Business in the 21st Century. Are you ready to rumble?
I first published this April 2005 but it came up in a conversation and thought I'd refloat it.