Marketing Incest

I think we all know that “incest” is a terrible word. But how does it apply to marketing? Well, in this context, it applies when your products or services, your company, or your marketing methods or strategies are too closely related to those of your competitors.

In human culture, inbreeding dumbs people down and makes certain rare illnesses far more prevalent. The same thing happens in non-human populations. I’ve raised dogs all of my life, and I’ve learned that purebred dogs are the ones most likely to have health issues, because they’re inbred. Sometimes the healthiest dogs are what we call “Heinz 57″ dogs — the kind where you can’t tell what breed they are, because they’re a little bit of this, and a little bit of that. Well, those types of companies are the healthiest companies, too.

Marketplaces tend to be incestuous in the sense that they’re resistant to outside influence. Ultimately, you end up with the blind leading the blind, and to be blunt, the stupid following the stupid. Everyone following the same methods. There’s no innovation. People are afraid to stand out. There’s nothing that really separates one company from another company. Even if there are things that separate them, they’re not making a big deal about them in an attempt to attract new customers — and they should.

You could ask a hundred different marketing experts, “What is marketing?”, and their answers would range all over the place. Some of the people who have advanced degrees behind their names will give you very complicated answers that take fifteen minutes or more to explain. That’s not necessary. What it all boils down to is this: Marketing is all you do to acquire and retain customers. Period.

There’s a great book by Seth Gordon called Purple Cow, and it tells you how to transform your business by being remarkable. You do that by offering something that’s so great about you, your company, or your products or services that people talk about it. It gets them so excited that they feel it’s worthy of conversation. We’ve seen this in action with great movies, great restaurants, or excellent services. You can do the same with your company. Make people talk about your products and services with awe. If you do that, you’ll be rewarded with money.

This is extremely important, because effective marketing requires that you separate yourself from everybody else. Technically, this is known as “differentiation.” You must differentiate yourself to avoid marketing incest. You’ve got to offer something different to your customers, something unique and intriguing. So here’s the burning question: what makes you, your company, your products and services different from everyone else? What makes you important to your best prospective buyers or customers?

You have to ask yourself that question repeatedly; and I suspect that at first, your answer will be “nothing in particular” or something weak like, “We offer great service.” (This is normal, by the way.) But if you ask that question often enough, you’ll start zeroing in on what you do or can do better than anyone else in your market. That’s a great starting point. From there, you have to either discover or create your points of differentiation.

The average prospect will rarely ever say to you, “What’s different about you, opposed to everybody else?”, or “Why should I choose you over all the other available choices?” But nevertheless, you need to have an answer ready — because they’re all asking themselves variations of that question. They have a finite amount of money to spend, so they’re wondering, “What is it about you, your company, and your products and services that makes you different? Why should I choose you?”

Just because they don’t say the words doesn’t mean that they’re not thinking then, because they’re always wondering. And as I’ve already indicated, the real answer for most companies is, there’s not a whole lot of difference between them and everyone else. That’s why behavior that some might consider outrageous stands out. Consider the entertainment world, where Lady Gaga might be the best example at the moment. She’s worth something like $100 million these days — and her fans adore her.

She does the most outrageous things. She showed up at the 2010 MTV Music Awards dressed in meat. I’m not making this up! It was outrageous, and people talked about it — a lot. Well, I’m not asking you to do anything like that, but you do need to make some effort to make yourself different. Don’t go too far, but don’t just copy everyone else, either.

Now, is Lady Gaga more talented than other singers? You make the call. If you’re reading this sometime in the future and the name’s not familiar, just check her out on the Internet (or whatever it’s morphed into by then). She’s a marketing phenomenon, if nothing else. Her name is kind of dumb, but it sticks, doesn’t it? And her outrageous performances make her memorable. She’s always dressed in something outrageous, something that looks totally different every time. As for her music, there’s not a lot of difference between it and everybody else’s. I don’t see her being especially gifted musically, though of course she does have some talent. But her big talent is standing out in a very crowded marketplace.

Personally, I’m a big fan of Bruce Springsteen. He’s got loads of talent, but he made his big mark through the length of his concerts. Where others might last 90 minutes to two hours, he’s up there performing for four and five hours, sometimes longer. He’s also a phenomenal performer, giving it all he has for all that time, putting it all out there for the fans. He’s remarkable, because he’s different from all the other rockers — and I’ve seen plenty of them.

Wichita, Kansas and the other cities I’ve attended concerts in aren’t exactly on the main circuit… and you could see how bored the performers were when they got up on stage. Sometimes they would even turn their backs to the audience. These guys were our heroes, and we paid big bucks to see them — money that could have gone for a million other things — and they were blowing us off like we didn’t matter. That’s like a slap in the face.

Bruce Springsteen wasn’t like that. He performed for us, singing his heart out. Not only did he go for two or three times longer than the rest of these guys, but he gave everyone a hell of a show. I became a huge fan of Bruce Springsteen and his band, because I admire them so much — especially how they’ve differentiated themselves from everybody else.

It’s easy to see real differentiation in the music business, which is crowded with clones. Most markets are like that, and again, many of the companies in all marketplaces are like the blind leading the blind. But in the country of the blind, the one-eyed man is king — so keep your eye open. Instead of copying others, reach for something different. Why don’t more people do this? Because they’re afraid to.

Look: people want to know who you are. They want to do business with other people. It’s the relationships that are important. So don’t be afraid to tell your story — and stop being a copycat. Sadly, you find Market Incest everywhere you look. Once you’re aware of this, it’s like the Jackson Browne song with the line that goes, “You take Sally, and I’ll take Sue, there ain’t no difference between the two.” You can’t let yourself be like that, so find those differentiations that make you unique. Look for weak areas that your competitors aren’t serving, jump in, and inject that “wow” factor to make yourself stand out above the crowd.

Here’s another useful idea: adapt ideas from other markets. My best example here is something you take for granted every time you go to your local fast food joint and don’t even have to leave your car to get your food. A McDonald’s executive was at a drive-through bank one day when it occurred to him that he could adapt the idea to his restaurant — and the rest is history. Nowadays, everybody’s got a drive-through window, even Starbucks. People are pre-conditioned to expect it. If you don’t have a drive-through window, they’ll go somewhere else that does.

So look for ideas outside your marketplace. The essence of creativity is combining existing ideas in whole new ways. Innovate. Search for new and exciting ways to do the same things that everybody else is doing. Look at it as a game — a challenge.

Remember: “In the land of the blind, the one eyed man is king.” All you have to do is find those points of differentiation that make you different, and build them into your business. Do that, and you’ll see a lot of prospects gravitating to you instead of your competitors.