To help me think about some businesses I’m involved with and what might be sustainable strategies for them, I’ve been reading Harvard Business School Professor Youngme Moon’s book, Different: Escaping the Competitive Herd — Standing Out In A World Where Conformity Reigns But Exceptions Rule.
Among the three kinds of often successful, but non-conformist, brand strategies that Professor Moon describes is the “breakaway brand”.
She starts with the story of Sony’s AIBO, an expensive, but not very useful and frequently non-functioning robot. In light of its very real limitations, the company positioned it not as a robot, but instead as a household pet. Branded as a pet, its quirky behavior and unresponsiveness to its owner’s commands at times (due to system errors) was acceptable, even expected. And many AIBO owners developed real understanding and affection for their “pet”.
In elaborating on the strategy, she wrote:
The new frame of reference — PET as opposed to ROBOT — has become an almost magical transformative device, transforming an instrumental product into a playful one, transforming a series of product flaws (“the voice recognition doesn’t work, and the thing rarely obeys commands”) into actual product benefits (“it’s a pet with a mind of its own”).
This, in a nutshell, is what breakaway brands are: They’re transformative devices. By presenting us with an alternative frame of reference, they encourage us to let go of the consumption posture we’re inclined to bring to a product and embrace entirely new terms of engagement instead. …
You could even say that breakaway brands revel in our stereotypes, since they make their living turning them upside down. We dream of someday owning a robot that will wait on us hand and foot, so what do these brands do? They give us a robot that we have to wait on hand and foot. …
These brands are the antithesis of well-behaved, and their mutiny is directed squarely at the category assumptions we bring to the table. And sometimes the transgression is more than a touch provocative; it’s a bit twisted as well. …
What a breakaway positioning strategy offers is the opportunity to achieve a kind of differentiation that is sustainable over the long term. … it has no competitors; it remains sui generis.
Then I put the book down to watch the news.
While I don’t normally write about politics and I’m not going to provide opinions about the candidates for US President here, this description — in a book published six years ago — struck me as being so clearly relevant to the 2016 rise of Donald Trump that I think it’s worth sharing.
Donald Trump hasn’t been educated as lawyer or political scientist or policy analyst and has not held public office. Instead, he is a businessman, with an education from one of the best business schools in the country and obvious skills at promotion. I have no idea if he has ever read this particular business book, but even if he hasn’t, he’s been pursuing exactly this strategy in politics with all of the extreme reactions — both positive and negative — that come to businesses pursuing breakaway brand strategies.
This helps me to understand the Trump phenomenon better. And the breakaway rethinking of the brand of President may also explain why Trump has maintained his support among voters regardless of whether they approve or disapprove of any of his positions and statements.
By the way, my guess is that this tweet indicates that Professor Moon herself is not at all happy about Trump.
And lest we think this is a one-time phenomenon, Professor Moon notes that:
In addition, these brands leave an indelible mark on their categories even after copycats emerge. In fact, this is what I tell my students: When you witness the birth of a breakaway brand, you are often witnessing the birth of an entirely new subcategory, one that is likely to alter the complexion of that industry well beyond the next business cycle. …
This, then, is what I mean when I say that breakaway brands succeed in transforming their industries. They leave their imprint by expanding product definitions, by stretching category boundaries, and by forcing competitors to play catch-up for years to come.
Of course, it remains to be seen how large a share of the “market” (the electorate) is attracted to this particular breakaway strategy — or if some other candidate in the future will find a new way of breaking away from what may have been the once-new, but then became conventional, behavior.
© 2016 Norman Jacknis, All Rights Reserved