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.