Professor Youngme Moon @ Business of Software. Different


If there is one strain of conventional wisdom pervading every company in every industry, it is the importance of competing hard to differentiate yourself from the competition. And yet going head-to-head with the competition—with respect to features, product augmentations, and so on—has the perverse effect of making you just like everyone else. Youngme’s message is simply: Get off the competitive treadmill that’s taking you nowhere. Aspire to offer the world something that is meaningfully different. Different in a manner that is both fundamental and comprehensive.

Bio – Youngme Moon is a Professor of Business Administration in the General Management unit at the Harvard Business School. At HBS, she teaches the Consumer Marketing elective in the MBA program. She also teaches in a number of HBS Executive Education programs, including Consumer Marketing Strategy, Strategic Marketing Management, and Marketing Innovative Technologies. Professor Moon has received the HBS Student Association Faculty Award for teaching excellence in both the first-year and her elective course on multiple occasions; she is also the inaugural recipient of the Hellman Faculty Fellowship, awarded for distinction in research.

Professor Moon’s research and course development focuses on innovative consumer marketing strategies. Her ideas have been published in numerous journals, including the Harvard Business Review, Journal of Consumer Research, the Journal of Consumer Psychology, the Journal of Experimental Psychology, and the Journal of Applied Social Psychology. She has published case studies on companies ranging Microsoft to Sony to Intel and she consults with a range of consumer marketing companies in the area of innovation. She serves on the Board of Directors of Avid Technology, and the Board of Governors for the American Red Cross.

Professor Moon received her Ph.D. from Stanford University. She holds an M.A. from Stanford University, and a B.A. from Yale University. Prior to joining HBS, she was on the faculty at MIT. She currently lives in Brookline with her husband and two sons. Her first book, Different, was recently published by Crown Business/Random House.

Professor Youngme Moon

Professor Youngme Moon

How can you differentiate between 50 brands of bottled water in one supermarket? In almost every instance, the managers of each and every one of those executives can tell you EXACTLY why and how their brand is different to the others. Sadly, for real people, no one cares very much.

It doesn’t start out like this:

Choice - sparkling or still?

Choice - sparkling or still?

But soon escalates:

Water water everywhere how which drop to drink?

Water water everywhere how which drop to drink?

And then the supermarket looks intimidating.

Supermarkets are not consumer friendly anymore. They are intimidating.

Supermarkets are not consumer friendly anymore. They are intimidating.

Wine connoisseurs see all the differences between all the varieties of wine on a wine list. Most people don’t they see white, red, rose, sparkly. They cannot see the difference. The BIG DEAL then, is can you look at your business from the perspective of a normal consumer, not you – the wine connoisseur in your industry? You might care if your company dies. Do your consumers?

Real difference has become rare in business.

We are becoming so good at best practices, that they are actually starting to hurt us. Best practices are backfiring.

  • e.g. Competitive vigilance– means being the opposite of complacent.
    • You look at what competitors do and feel compelled to match anything but this just leads to samey, mushy, choreographed behaviours that no one can distinguish between.
  • Listening to customers. We are now better at this than ever.
    • But customers are great at telling you how to improve, but they cannot tell you how to be different. (e.g. Volvos are really safe but can they be sexy?).
  • Our commitment to focus on excellence means that we are afraid to be bad at anything.

If you are actually looking for an Outlier solution, you should not rely on the views of others. What would you expect a manager to improve?

Market research suggests

Market research suggests...

But all that happens then is a more mulchy solution – particularly when you multiply that across a ton of companies in the industry. Why not try the lopsided solution? The more crowded and competitive market you are in, the more you need to be lopsided.

Accentuate the positive, ignore the negative and be different...

Accentuate the positive, ignore the negative and be different...

There is no formula for how to be different. [This seems to be one of the key themes of Business of Software 2010].

Case Study #1

Imagine you are shopping for furniture. People hate shopping for furniture – Americans hate it and change their furniture as often as their partner as a result. Furniture sales people are trained to remove every obstacle to buying. Surround them by helpful people and customers complain of being pressured. Give them several alternative plans for finance, they complain about confusion. These are key characteristics of a horribly crowded market.

IKEA is different. They say no. There is very little stylistic variety. You have to make stuff yourself.

[I went to IKEA with my son three weeks ago and he actually threw himself off a sofa onto a coffee table to escape – he ended up in hospital as a result. We still love it. Youngme says there is a day care centre for children but it was full!]

Arthur with IKEA teddy in Ambulance on way to hospital

Arthur with IKEA teddy in Ambulance on way to hospital

He did get a free IKEA teddy bear.

Case Study #2

Its 2002 and America is tied up in their love affair with huge SUVs. You are being asked to launch a teeny, tiny, ickle wickle car on a teeny, tiny, ickle, wickle budget.

You can either go for the, ‘Its bigger than it looks on the inside option’ or the, ‘This looks like a cool, robust and well-designed car”

The car was the mini.

Mini chose to BIG up the mini-ness of the Mini. Most marketers would have pooed their pants.



Mini embraced the negative – successfully. Most product launches focus on the positives and the silky smooth pitches just fall off consumers. Traction requires friction

Case Study #3

When Twitter launched, people laughed at the crappiness of having to put messages in 140 characters. Now it has spawned a new way of communicating. Twitter took the world of Giant Sized Snicker Mars and introduced the M&M.

All of those brands have found a tribe and customers by embracing their weaknesses.

If you want to be different…

  • You have to be willing to ignore your critics
  • You have to be able to ignore your customers as well
    • Just ask Google, Facebook, Apple (though most of them won’t respond)

Different and crazy can look the same at first.

Brilliant talk. Different.