24 August 2012

Clark Kent – Role Model: The Dubious Virtues of Leading from the Rear

by Freddy J. Nager, Founder of Atomic Tango LLC + Hardcore Differentiation Advocate

Role Model for Today's Leading Providers of Leadership

Role Model for Today’s Leading Providers of Leadership

Thanks to the jury in the Apple-Samsung case, product differentiation is now mandated in the marketplace (at least in the smartphone industry). Unfortunately, differentiation — and creativity and boldness — are harder to come by, despite every company’s claim of “leadership.” That’s what inspired this sardonic rant. Here’s hoping it won’t take more jury decisions to spark more creativity in the world…

I’m always amazed by what I can learn about businesses on the Internet. For example, did you know that roughly 99.999% of all companies are “leaders” or “leading providers”? I discovered that by reading their press releases online. I admit, I’ve only read a few million, so my estimate may be off by plus or minus .001%, but I think it’s pretty close.


Here’s the crazy part: when you take these same leaders and present them with an opportunity to actually lead by doing something, say, NEW, they perpetrate the best Clark Kent impressions ever. You should see how fast their super capes disappear and the thick glasses come on as they attempt to blend in…

“Oh, you want me to make a decision? Well, uh, what’s everyone else doing? We’ll just do that,” they say. Or better yet, “What’s the market leader doing? If the market leader’s doing it, that must be a best practice…”

Rock on.

I wish business school had taught me how to lead by following. Oh, wait, they did: those were called “case studies.”

The Extraordinariness Continues…

While swimming in the tepid seas of blandness, many of these masters of conformity avoid any form of advertising whatsoever. Instead, they claim that “word of mouth” will score them customers. You can just hear those inspiring mouth-words now: “OMG, you must buy from that company! They’re just like everyone else!”

My pulse races at the thought. How about yours?

I’ve had the opportunity to witness this mind-searing boldness up-close and personal. When I was a copywriter, these leaders would ask me to emphasize that they’re “next generation” and “cutting edge” (and you gotta be a leader to use terms that went out of fashion during the Ford administration). So I would present them several options for style and messaging, and inevitably, they’d go for the safest, most conservative option. Or sometimes they’d tell me to just copy what the competition had written.

Such huevos! What’s the Dos Equis dude got on them?

Enter the Challenger Brands…

But you know who spoils the mediocrity fest by spiking the punch and putting salsa in the tamales? Smaller companies who fully acknowledge that they’re not market leaders.

Instead, these challenger brands strive to be different, dismissing “best practices,” and taking risks in both actions and words. Get this: they actually advertise, ’cause they want people to know they exist. You’d think they’d stop there, but no, their compellingly creative ads go on and win awards and views and shares and thumbs-up.

Consumers who also view themselves as challengers will then buy the challenger brand products for a higher price than they’d pay for the leading products. And soon more people are looking at the challengers, and more higher priced stuff gets sold, and then the challengers suddenly become market leaders — leaders in sales, not just words. And you know what happens as a result of all that? That’s right: those higher prices cause inflation, and everyone knows inflation sucks.

So there. That’s what you get for listening to nonconformists: inflation.

So let’s all play it safe by being leading leaders who lead as leading providers of leadership. You can’t go wrong there. Or, really, anywhere at all.


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Freddy is the Founder & Creative Strategist of Atomic Tango. He also teaches at the University of Southern California (go Trojans!), shoots pool somewhat adequately, and herds cats. Freddy received his BA from Harvard and his MBA from USC.

One Response

  1. You got me! “Leading” is slowly creeping its way into our copy. As a financial instituiton, the reasoning is that we want to project stability/reliability, but I think your point stands–it’s just cliche now. I can also argue that with the current banking scandals, the little guys may have the moral advantage. Thanks for the affirmation.

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