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Why are companies so afraid of “think(ing) different”?

You’d think that companies would want to make their products different from their competitors, wouldn’t you? ?After all, if there’s a difference, people might actually buy your product rather than someone else’s?

Not always the case, as Matthew Taylor notes:

“Then a few days later a friend was comparing prices from Virgin and BT to have a broadband package in the home. Leaflets came through the door with attractive and strikingly different all-in monthly prices on their cover. It took a couple of hours of ploughing through the small print to work out that the actual cost was two or three times as much and, if everything was included, the prices were virtually identical.”

(Caveat: BT are a client, so naturally I’d dispute part of this! :) )

In his fabulous list of “Top tips on how to get the worst out of your agency“, James Myers notes much the same thing from a marketing perspective:

“Under no circumstances provide information that suggests your product or service is different in any way shape or form.”

So why on earth does this happen? My guess is that there’s two reasons. First, when you’re supplying a commodity good or service, all companies are working with the same basic products and similar margins, which means you have to work very hard to do something different. 

The second – and I think what James is getting at – is that differentiation is risky and most corporations are notoriously risk-averse. If you’re doing something different to the competition and it fails, you – the middle-level manager with a budget – are going to get dumped on from a very great height. If, on the other hand, you’re doing the same thing as your competitors then it’s likely they’ll fail as badly as you – and then everything will be fine. 

Which leads me to a question which will form a decent book for someone: How does Apple manage to be a company which apparently doesn’t take too many risks, but which manages nonetheless to do marketing, product design and development so differently to everyone else? How, in a market which everyone is convinced is a commodity one, do they differentiate?

As I mentioned, I think there’s a serious book in that. One that, once he’s retired, I hope Steve Jobs will write. 

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  • http://twitter.com/daycoder hywel

    Interesting post. Most managers will be like most of the cops in The Wire. Just keeping their heads down and looking after the pension.

  • http://www.technovia.co.uk ianbetteridge

    And the irony of it is that the very managers who they're afraid will tell them off for taking risks got to where they are by… taking risks.