Wednesday, August 03, 2005

The bland leading the bland.

A senior marketing executive recently shared some thoughts with me about my entry on Roald Dahl and the need to create an audience of enthusiasts. His company — a multinational that's on an extraordinary run right now — defines a product effort that attempts to be all things to all people with a great term.

They call it bland leadership.

Nice. Quite cutting, isn't it?

Whenever we create, we soon find ourselves rounding off the sharp edges in a desperate attempt to make something that no one will find unappealing. In the process, of course, we take away the very things that just might make a product stand out. We lose any point of difference and, with it, any chance of creating intensely loyal fans.

Consider modern car shapes, all seemingly poured from the same jelly bean mold. When a car — the MINI, the 300C — dares to break out, people sprint straight past their credit card debt to buy it. (The Pontiak Aztek, unfortunately, proved something else entirely — flat out ugly is still just flat out ugly.)

Or beer. The big brewers, with their dull bubbly water and their frat boy bah-da-boom advertising, can't grow. Craft beer, even in the face of the emerging thirst for spirits, continues to find new fans. No, a Busch Light drinker will never seek out a Bell's Porter. But millions of others will.

And, of course, there's advertising. The century-long commitment to mediocrity is remarkable — 95% of ads are still so innocuous they're invisible. It's a force so powerful that not even a steady onslaught of black turtlenecks and Prada pants has been able to quell it.

The list of product categories where banal is losing while captivating is winning goes on and on. Coffee. Magazines. Consumer electronics. In fact, Josh Rubin publishes a list of fascinating products every day. They're probably not all going to succeed. But most will enthrall at least a few people.

So why is there such a relentless, dogged pursuit of bland? Sometimes it probably happens because we simply run out of good ideas. We're only human, after all. But my friend pointed out something else.


Turns out Mr. Research — in his short-sleeved dress shirt with his tie clipped just so — says that when you make something more interesting, a smaller number of people will find your product appealing. So get rid of those sharp edges! Dial down the flavor! There, now you've got a product that everyone will like.

What Mr. Research can't see through those thick lenses he favors is that nobody will love it. Nobody will seek it out. Nobody will tell their friends about it. And nobody will remember to buy it unless they're really into mail-in rebates.

After all, nobody wants to be in like. At least once, we all want to be in love.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nice thoughts Dean. I agree whole heartedly. But, there are those companies that don't care if people love thier brands, They just want to take the money of the masses and run. What they don't seem to get, is they will constantly be battling for that fickle consumer's loyalty. Only to be dumped at the drop of a hat, or rebate. It takes guts for a brand to take a stand. Because many times it can take more than a year to turn or build a brand. For the same reason, it takes even more guts for a marketing director to take a stand. His or her job could be on the line if they don't produce results in less than a year. It would help if they were to get support from the higher-ups in a company. So they can make confident decisions about the brand, rather than their job secutiry. Hopefully, some CEOs will read this blog as well as marketing directors.

I can think of a few brands that make a mark and do it right. Apple. Virgin. Can you think of any others off the top of your head? By the way, I've never met an Apple user that didn't bleed for apple.

7:28 AM  
Blogger Black Lab Five said...

Nice comments. I always find it interesting that companies that have CEOs who think like marketers — Apple, Virgin, Starbucks, Jones Soda — are the companies with powerful modern brands. A while back, I seem to remember reading that the average tenure of a new CMO is 23 months. Talk about shortsighted.

I guess it's partly the pressure that public companies face. And partly the fact that marketing people are easy to axe when things don't seem to be going perfectly.

Funny thing with Apple — they spent so many years getting hammered because they couldn't increase their PC share. Now their commitment to iconoclast products is finally paying off and people tend to forget all the heat they were taking when crap Dell computers were flying off the shelves.

6:09 AM  
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