Are You Herding or Standing Apart?

It’s late June here in Chicago, and that means at least three things:

  • We just stopped playing professional hockey last night.  (Congratulations, Blackhawks!)
  • Bar and restaurant patios are full even in the middle of the afternoon, one of dozens of reasons to love this city.
  • The “vests” are out in full force.
“Can I just get a minute of your time?” Uh, no.

In case this phenomenon is not happening in your burg, the “vests” are workers who occupy street corners and solicit donations for charity. They wear colored vests representing their causes – Children’s International, Greenpeace or whatnot. Sometimes they’re also called “chuggers,” short for “charity muggers.”

Lately, the vests are a lot like online banner ads. The first few times I encountered them, it was disruptive and novel. Now, though, they’re absolutely everywhere. And, like most people, I do what I can to avoid them.

I should note that I have no problem with the workers themselves, who are generally courteous and sometimes quite charming in their approach. At worst, they can be overly persistent, an outcome of the commission-based pay structure on which most of them work.

The issue is this: An approach that was once successful has become so ubiquitous that it’s annoying.  This is a good sign that it’s not working any more, or at least not working as well as it once did.

This ubiquity is the result of “herding”: “Oh, my competitors are doing it?  Well, I’ll just do what they do.” You see this in every corner of business.  (I once had a boss who said repeatedly, “If our competitors are doing it, it must be working.” This is one of the most terrifying things I’ve ever heard.)

As with many things, there’s a marketing lesson here. Think about the tactics that you’re employing right now. Now think about how you arrived at those. Did you simply default to industry norms or your own historical tactics, regardless of outcome? Or did you start with your unique strategic pillars – your positioning, objectives, target audience, strengths, points of difference, and so on – and then identify the strategies and tactics that would work hardest for you?  Did you make a choice in favor of following the herd, or standing apart?

Strategy is a creative exercise. After the proper analysis, you get to consider all the possibilities (some of which you’ll invent or originate). Then you select the few that will have the greatest positive impact on your future. It should be fun. If strategy is an exercise that the entire company dreads, that means you’re not doing it correctly.

No great brand was ever built by marching in lockstep with the herd. Whenever there’s a good reason, it’s best to zig where others zag. And if you zig often enough, if you keep standing apart, no one will ever mistake your brand for your competitors.

About Matthew Fenton: Matthew helps challenger brands to focus, grow and win.  Since founding his consultancy, Three Deuce Branding, in 1997, he’s helped hundreds of brands to achieve “brand clarity.”  His consulting services and speaking engagements help brands to focus on what matters through positioning, strategy and ideation.  Contact Matthew here.  He calls Chicago home.

Copyright 2013 – Matthew Fenton.  All Rights Reserved.  You may reprint this article with the original, unedited text intact, including the About Matthew Fenton section.