Customers will always tell you they want better products and lower prices. They might even be able to articulate how much better certain products should be. But don’t expect them to be able to tell you how different those products could be. More importantly, don’t expect them to tell you how you should surprise and delight them.
This was an insight from a book called Different, Escaping the Competitive Herd written by Youngme Moon (I won't review the book but I'd recommend it for entrepreneurs and marketers fascinated by inconic brands such as Apple, Harley Davidson, IKEA and InNOut Burger).
As Clayton Christensen explained in the Innovator's Dilemma, there is a predictable pattern in just about every product category. Innovation leads to products that improve to a point where customers are over-served (the web browser might be the latest category to reach this level).
From a vendor's perspective, the problem is that over-served customers become so skeptical about the differences between products and brands that differentiation is rendered meaningless. Most customers become not only bored but unhappy.
In category after category, over-served, bored and unhappy customers would love to discover something delightful, remarkable and refreshing. And marketers spend billions of dollars trying to rise above the competitive noise.
Ironically, intense competition only quickens the pace toward blandness and a herd mentality in markets. This trap is hard to escape. The herd phenomena is seen in self-organizing systems as disparate as ant colonies, bird flocks and stock markets.
Paradoxically, the best way to stand out, might be to NOT focus on beating the competition. At the 1997 WWDC, before he rejoined Apple as CEO, Steve Jobs stated the following (32:43 of video):
"...the other thing I feel very, very, very strongly about is, it's incredibly stupid for Apple to get in a position where for Apple to win Microsoft has to lose. That's really dumb... Apple can win without having to have Microsoft lose."
Don't focus on being better. Don't fret over differentiation. Think Different. Be different. Transcend boundaries. Stand alone. Walk down a very lonely path.
Something that every entrepreneur should keep in mind is what Jerry Garcia once said:
"You do not merely want to be considered just the best of the best. You want to be considered the only ones who do what you do."
What will you do? How will you be different? One place to start, is to be yourself. Be genuine.
To really, really soar, don't just be better, faster, cheaper. You can do better than that. And please, please, please, don't aspire to be "the Mint of XXX category" or "the AirBnB or YYY category" or the "Groupon of XYZ category."