Marketing plots: The leader’s lament

 Last time I talked about the generic trap loop. This time I want to talk about another generic trap, a “golden generic cage” of sorts. Another case where being successful brings with it the curse of becoming generic.

I’m fascinated by stories where leading brands become stuck in that generic spot everybody is trying to get out of. These are players who worked very hard to get to the top, only to discover they’re all pretty much the same up there.
As a consultant I really like working with challenger brands, but often find them trudging through a painful plateau, that is something quite depressing for a hard-working
over-achieving team.

This is a plot that repeats in highly competitive global categories, especially with big service oriented B2B companies. In these categories it is common to have hundreds if not thousands of global players, but there will usually be a group of leaders that tower among everyone else. They may be top-5 top-10 or top-50, it depends on the category, but they stand apart from all the rest.

When a brand enters this exclusive club a common mistake will be to get stuck on things that no longer matter for audiences:
“We’ve grown a lot in the last couple of years – nobody seems knows it. Let’s make more noise about how big and good we are.”.
News-flash: no one cares. Of course you’re big, that’s why you’re a top-X player. Thus, this fact becomes boring and irrelevant. Counter-intuitive, eh?

The problem is that what got you so far, won’t set you apart from the rest of the leaders.
Why? It’s like the Olympics. When you compare all the runners in the world the performance varies greatly, but on the Olympic track, the winners differ by 0.1 or 0.01 of a second.

When this happens in business, you’re in trouble, many of your differentiating achievements magically disappear and turn into “entry prices”. The things you spent years fighting for, no longer mean that much.
Best practice is the new average. Hell, best of breed is the new average.

When this happens, top-of-mind counts for surprisingly a lot. If it’s a competitive B2B category, a decision maker will have one or two favourites, first ports of call, but beyond that? The first top-x name that comes to her mind. Being this top-of-mind player means a chance of winning those star accounts and star deals, and the benevolent circles they create – whether you’re a VC cherry-picking entrepreneurs (= being cherry-picked by the best entrepreneurs), a chemical manufacturer or a professional services provider.

So? “Now what?” That’s your big question, and yes, it can be a slightly depressing one. The futility of achievement is one of the challenges of leading a meaningful life, and that goes for doing meaningful work as well.
Now is the time to start exploring what really got you that far and what’s different about you. If the answer is: “nothing” it’s time to figure out what you want to stand for. Once you find it – find a way to tell it concisely at every opportunity you have.
Preferably, find some juicy stories you can use. Like the was sequoia uses the star Internet brands they invested in (Google, Paypal, Youtube and more) when talking about themselves, thus creating a virtuous cycle of star-deals. Architect firms use those star projects, their stories told in a very specific way.

Welcome to Olympus!
The bad news – everybody is immortal around here.
The good news – it’s a clear and limited group to stand out from.

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