Fear of Differentiating… Too Much

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The marketing team is assembled, and the decision is made. Dramatic change is needed to combat market share erosion, market share capture, brand defense [insert your objective du jour]. An excitement coalesces in the air and the entire team takes a long luxurious inhale of its magic powers. ‘Who needs the spa?’ they whisper to themselves. Convinced they are setting out on true innovation and a career changing moment, they invest completely, ready to shake the status quo.

An agency partner is called in and the team, adrenaline intact, charters the agency to break outside previous marketing fences and deliver inspired, fresh, avant-garde marketing approaches. The agency is handed the kite in the thunderstorm and is electrified. At last, they say, a client willing to break out of the expected. “We can’t wait to get started’ they say with the anticipation of an astronaut on their first space flight.

The agency CD creates a short list of conventional approaches and tells her team she won’t entertain anything that comes close. The team pours themselves into concepting. The CD rejects and challenges like a furnace refining gold. They finally get their nuggets.

Back at the client, the concepts are praised. The combined team is exhilarated. The client says they’ll decide on the final concept so the agency can get to work bringing it to life. And then the march begins. Unfortunately, it isn’t a forward march. It is a measured retreat. Where? To the familiar, to the expected, to the norm.

Marketers are not immune to the fear of change. While the concept of change ignites desire, the reality instills more fear than a grade B horror film to a pre-teen. What if it doesn’t work? What if my manager thinks we’ve gone too far? What if my peers see it as a major blunder?

Aversion to change doesn’t escape the marketer, no matter how much verbal confession of living on the creative edge has occurred. The allergic reaction isn’t caused by the concepts, but rather uncertainty. Tragically, human nature would prefer a negative outcome that is predictable to a disciplined challenge that breaks convention. If the proposed direction is inline with what has been done in the past, hurray, our brains say and the comfort hormones flow into our psyche.

We comfort ourselves by making the creative compromise of degrading differentiation into either the same approach as always, or mere baby steps away from it. Differentiation is subjugated to the satisfaction of the known. Risk is reduced, but so is market impact. When the campaign data comes in, analysis blames the media planners, the art direction of the concept, the marketing plan – anything but the undifferentiated creative that the forces of fear imposed causing a well-worn walk away from a marketing breakthrough.

So how do you break away from the closed loop marketing track you’ve been running?

Accept that perfection isn’t attainable
Whether you reproduce the expected or pursue differentiation through innovation, neither path will deliver certainty in its degrees of success. You can fail colossally be standing still. Embracing this reality can help release you from viewing innovation as a bigger risk.

Embrace test and learn
It’s akin to a marketer’s hypocritic oath so why don’t we do it more? Select a project with enough risk to test, then go for it.

Don’t handcuff your creative team
Ah, perhaps the most difficult change of all – give your team, your agency creative freedom. Give up control. If you’re a CD, of course you’ll have a brief for context, but within that framework let people explore. When you do, they can deliver their best.

Monitor your responses to the creative concepts
Are you killing them because they aren’t in the comfortable, tried and true zone? Fight your nature to build the trail back to ‘what we always do’. No innovation happens in that environment.

Be uncomfortable
Discomfort is a visceral response. While it shouldn’t be your sole form of judgment of a concept, if you are innovating you will experience it, and that’s a good thing.

Go where no marketer has gone before. It can deliver the impact your business needs, while raising the bar for the industry. Bon voyage.


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