The reason most products are alike is that they are the first thing that came to someone’s mind.

Or in some cases the second or third thing, which is invariably still a variation on the theme of the first thing. This is why most cars look broadly alike, most ads on TV (if you still watch that kind of thing) feature a product and a price, and why all our smartphones are slick rectangular slabs.

Now, you might argue that this is because it is an established product (or service). That it is a standard and that deviating from that standard would make it unrecognisable for the customer and therefore a flop. Consequently, the logic goes, developing a product or service that in broad terms is exactly like that of the competitor, is a safe and brilliant idea. After all, why stick out in the market place?

Don’t stop at 1-2-3

Developing a new idea, one that is not just a variation on the same theme but really new, requires you to force yourself to iterate. To not stop when it is comfortable, but to keep going until you are in uncharted territory. This is hard, but rewarding.

Try this exercise

It is called crazy 8’s and we’ve run this in all kinds of workshops with all kinds of people. Take a piece of paper, fold it three times in half and you end up with 8 rectangles. In the first draw and apple. In the second draw a completely different apple. In the third an apple that is different from the first and second one and so on. What this exercise clearly demonstrates is that everyone’s first apple is exactly the same. The second is a variation on the theme and so is the third one. By the fourth rectangle people are generally running out of good ideas of how to draw an apple and start clutching at straws. By drawing a pack of apple juice instead. And then the floodgates of ideas hit them as they realise, it is also possible to draw apple pies, apple trees, apples seeds, happy worms in apples, I love NY symbols and computer company logos.




The thing is, that not everyone can do this the first time. It requires you to be fairly comfortable thinking laterally about things, not just literally. Working in a group with critical colleagues, it requires real courage to zig when everyone else is only zagging. Within a real brainstorming session inside an organisation, when you have only two hours to come up with new ideas, where you have to be “creative”, it might just be impossible to stick your neck out with an abstract concept when everyone else is sticking to safe and proposing a new and better colour for the shoes, that will really make them stick out in the sneaker category.

Forcing yourself, and your organisation, to really iterate and develop a theme until it is only connected in thought to the initial concept, is difficult. However, as the crazy 8’s exercise clearly demonstrates, if you don’t iterate further, then all you’ll do is end up in exactly the same place as your competitors. Because they didn’t push ideas further either, and came up with the same variation of theme as you did.

Same shit, different channel

Playing it safe is the least safe game you can play. While inside your organisation, it affords you the comfort of not sticking out, in the market place the safe play will disappear on the shelf with all the other safe bets. Consequently, since nothing is really sticking out and making a difference, a lot of effort and finances will be spent on advertising the same-old-same-old product in a new and creative but still safe manner of showing the product at a discounted price, making the only thing that is unique about the product how cheap it is.

Since cheap products cannot be really good products (or services), then you need to sell more and more, which drives consumption but in the end creates very little lasting value for anyone. Which will inevitably lead to another “product innovation workshop” where you have to be even more creative to come up with the next new exactly the same product as your competitor, but now in a nicer package.

Culture. It’s a quaint concept that we often dismiss at our peril.

Sort of like aesthetics. In business we pretend that everyone is rational and that neither beauty nor culture play a big role in a brand’s success or failure. But then we leave the office at 5pm, and go and accidentally buy those cool sneakers because they were just …cool. And they will make us look cool, which is most definitely a culturally defined issue.

In looking for new markets, whether they be the next town, county or country, involves taking local culture into account. Ways of doing things, talking about things, that are so ingrained as to be part of social fabric, is what makes up culture. In business, inside companies, these are the unwritten rules that influence individual behaviour and decisions, that no matter how many rules are laid down, still affect the outcome more than the “plan”.

Culture can be benign or malign. In many cases the idea of helping your fellow human are just an ingrained piece of culture. But as witnessed throughout hundreds of studies worldwide, applying for a job with a foreign name gets you less interviews than with a local name.* Malign culture rears its ugly head.

In an increasingly interconnected world where business is done across countries and continents, it is easy to presume that the “example of me” is a good platform to expanding abroad. Ironically, we are more likely to sensitive to our neighbour’s cultural differences than to those of countries that are far away. The presumption is, that “business as usual” will probably work. That because “our” solution is technically superior and cheaper to run, that implementing it “over there” will be a no-brainer.

The above situation almost always fails to take into account the broader historical and cultural context, which puts up obstacles to adoption of “the better way of doing things” in ways, you couldn’t even imagine. Failures of this kind usually stem from wilful ignorance. Because understanding, and empathising with the target group is time consuming and difficult.

In principle, it is failing to acknowledge that in going where you have not gone before, requires a learning curve. In service design this learning curve is referred to as the fuzzy front end. It defines the beginning of a new project, where in order to understand what is going on and how it is going on, requires the designer to explore the territory without presumptions and agenda, in order to determine the best plan of action forward.

In fact, the discovery process of service design, whether it is applied to improving the service on a existing market or to find the best way onto a new, foreign market, is remarkably effective for understanding the culture and unwritten rules of the target group. Being able to empathise with the people you want to eventually sell products or services to, will allow you to place your offer into the local cultural context. Whether this context is that of the people you are facing in negotiations directly or the whole market you eventually want to sell to, doesn’t matter. In either case, fitting your brand into the context of the customer will make it relevant and a realistic option for them, rather than a foreign element that makes no sense to the local situation. Like being a fork in soup restaurant.

A customer’s journey for a product or service goes from need to satisfaction. Most companies at most times are focusing all their attention on the moment of transaction, and therefore, by default, ignore the broader context of the customer’s life and what he or she is actually trying to get done. By mapping this customer journey, you can clearly see that it is your brand that has to fit into the customer’s life. It is never the customer that has to fit your brand.

Service design is sort of like understanding culture, isn’t it?

Culture eats strategy for breakfast is a quote often attributed to Peter Drucker.

* Swedish research, English research, American research