Against Popularity

To Hell with the Herd


The embedded problem with chasing popularity," says Harvard Business School marketing professor Youngme Moon, "is that you're not the only one chasing it." The speed at which trends occur and die out, she says, has vastly accelerated thanks to social media and globalization. In her book Different: Escaping the Competitive Herd, Moon duly argues for what she calls "reverse positioning." The tenets: Simplify when everyone else is tacking on options. Give back to customers when competitors are taking back. Resist the urge to succumb to feature-itis. "Reverse brands say no where others say yes," writes Moon, "but they also say yes where others say no."

As a case study, Moon points to the prevailing marketing wisdom of the airline industry in the 1970s and 1980s, when American Airlines, United, and the rest of the majors played up all the service and amenities that a full-fare coach class ticket bought you. It was, she says, "an arms race" to advertise sumptuous meals, warm cookies, a hot towel for your face. Enter JetBlue in 2000, with its second-tier airports and no-meal, low-cost structure juxtaposed with leather seats, TV, and biscotti. Low-cost with the right frills became all the rage, forcing the majors to suddenly take away everything but the seat cushion to remain competitive. "Once you look around and find you and your competitors all doing the same thing," says Moon, "it's very hard to extricate yourself. And if you do, your customers feel betrayed—and you look like an idiot."

Or recall how Yahoo!, AOL, and MSN once chased portal dominance by adding ever more functionality—shopping, search, weather, e-mail—to every white inch of their home page. Then, as if out of nowhere, along comes Google, with its decidedly uncluttered look but superior search technology—a recipe that it has defiantly stuck to since its beginnings. AOL, MSN, and Yahoo have been shifting around features ever since, with diminishing returns.

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Farzad is a Bloomberg Businessweek contributor. Follow him on Twitter @robenfarzad.

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