BOOK REVIEW: 'Different': How Companies Stand Out in the Marketplace; A Business Book That You'll Actually Read

Reviewed by David M. Kinchen
BOOK REVIEW: 'Different': How Companies Stand Out in the Marketplace; A Business Book That You'll Actually Read
When I open a package from a publisher and a review copy of a business book drops out, I let out a groan -- and I mean a GROAN! -- and usually toss it on a pile of books to be read sometime, in a distant parallel universe future. Sometimes I even read the publisher's handout, which usually reveals the book to be like all the rest.

Right now the "future" pile includes a memoir by Richard Branson of Virgin (which I'll probably review, because I think this wild and crazy creative beyond belief Brit is something else); a book on "Secrets & Strategies" for success in an uncertain world; another book on how business people can  attain celebrity status (why?);  and a book with dogs on the cover called "Fierce Leadership."

In the case of the paperback edition of Youngme Moon's 2010 book "Different: Escaping the Competitive Herd" (Crown Business, 288 pages, index, $15.00, also available as an audiobook and an eBook), I'm glad I glanced at the handout, because this book has three dogs on the cover! A black dog on the right and a white dog on the left are staring at a spotted "different" dog in the middle. Shades of photographer William Wegman's "Fay Ray."
Youngme Moon
Youngme Moon

Harvard Business School professor Youngme Moon says her book on brand differentiation is for “people who don’t read business books.”  I dipped into it, expecting the usual book of "do this, and do that" rules and was pleasantly surprised to find a book that made me think of my own examples. I plowed through it, continually bringing up my own parallel examples for all the ones she discussed. This is good, because books should stimulate your mind above all else.

Where she opined about IKEA, the Swedish furniture company that makes you assemble their quirky furniture with an allen wrench, I thought of my love -- yes, LOVE! --  for Trader Joe's, a California-based specialty grocery chain that sells cheap but very drinkable wine called "Two Buck Chuck"  and a wide variety of quality store brand foodstuffs, and attracts a fiercely loyal fan base (yes, a fan base for what's essentially a downsized grocery store -- it actually started out as a convenience store in the L.A. area. We don't have them where I live, so I treasure my visits to places where TJ's are present). in the case of Trader Joe's, all credit to Aldi, the German conglomerate that bought the chain decades ago -- and didn't screw up the successful formula.

In Youngme Moon's random walk through the world of marketing, along with IKEA,  she discusses Apple, Harley-Davidson,  Benetton, the Mini Cooper car, Dove soap, Swatch watches, Red Bull energy drink, In-N-Out Burger, and the hundreds of bottled waters on store shelves where once we had only Evian and Perrier among imported brands.  Her prose is more like a personal conversation among friends; as inspirations  she cites Bill Bryson and Richard Feynman’s “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!” 

Certainly qualifying as "different" is the controversial Dove (a Unilever soap) "Evolution" commercial (for a YouTub  click: which transforms an ordinary woman into a supermodel with makeup and Photoshopping), as well as print ads that show a variety of "regular" women in white underwear. In this wildly idiosyncratic book -- she quotes Chicago Sun-Times columnist Richard Roeper saying: "Chunky women in their underwear have surrounded my house....I find these ads a little unsettling. If I want to see plump gals baring too much skin, I'll go to Taste of Chicago, OK?"

She weighs in on the Benetton "Colours of the World" advertising campaign, which I personally hate. I don't like the company's  faux pandering -- to me, at least -- to hawk overpriced clothing made in the sweatshops of the Third World.

While living in the Los Angeles area, I occasionally visited In-N-Out Burger, but more often than not, I consumed Fatburgers ("You Can't Beat Our Meat"). Here in Texas, I'm a devotee of Whataburger, because you can get a burger and fries or onion rings 24/7, without having to wait until 11 a.m. as you must at McDonald's. Whataburger's excellent motto: "Just Like You Like It."

She notes that the iconic Harley-Davidson brand was being decimated by dependable but often boring Japanese motorcycles like Honda ("You meet the nicest people on a Honda!") when new management took over and decided to be different by emphasizing the "outlaw" aspect of the big V-twin engine bike.  H-D started its own in-house bike club, H.O.G. (Harley Owners Group) and came back from the dead. 

Speaking of this, I think it's time to give AMF credit for keeping Harley alive in the 1970s and 80s until a new generation of descendants of the founders came along to get creative. I know it's conventional wisdom to say AMF "cheapened" the brand, but the conglomerate also  kept the brand from going the way of Indian bikes which were superior to Harleys.  Also, Harley management paid much greater attention to quality control on bikes that were often so undependable that the joke was the mirrors on the handlebars were there to see where parts that had fallen off landed. Despite living in Milwaukee in the 1960s and '70s, I never cottoned to the brand; I rode a 1971 BMW opposed twin bike -- among other import brands.

Don't compete like crazy with other brands, says the author. Apple wisely decided to stop comparing itself to Windows PCs, which had become commodities. Apple is a "different" brand that does everything better than other brands -- which is why I have a MacBookPro, an iMac and a Mac mini.  Think IBM's decision a few years ago to sell its personal computer brand to Lenovo and concentrate on other aspects of the high-tech business. Or HP's recent decision to discontinue -- after only weeks on the market -- its Touchpad tablet that couldn't compete with Apple's iPad.

Youngme Moon’s message is simply “Get off this treadmill that’s taking you nowhere. Going tit for tat and adding features, augmentations, and gimmicks to beat the competition has the perverse result of making you like everyone else.”

In the high-tech world, the author says that Google wins out with consumers by offering less, like Apple (think of Apple's one-button mouse and the lack of optical drives on the MacBook Air (which I don't like! I want that CD/DVD drive that's on my MacBookPro). The Google interface is staggeringly simple, compared with AOL and Yahoo! 

Google has been described as the world's largest advertising agency disguised as a search engine. Google is branching out with its Android operating system and is rumored to be readying an Android tablet to compete with the iPad. I already have a Cruz Tablet by Velocity Micro Electronics Inc. of Richmond, VA, that does everything the Apple product does for less than a third of the price. It uses Google's Android operating system, which has many apps, including the Kindle one that I use often. That's quite an endorsement from a person who has been drinking Apple Kool-Aid for a generation now!

Speaking of Amazon's Kindle and Kindle Store, I was surprised to see no mention in the book of Amazon, or eBay or Angie's List or craigslist. All are successes because they are different, not commodities. Companies like RCA, GE and Sony lost their edge because of commodification.
I wonder if Chrysler's Fiat 500 recent launch will repeat the success of BMW's Mini Cooper line that was launched with the daring slogan:  “Worried that this car is too small? Look here. It’s even smaller than you think.” The Fiat 500 -- similar in size to the Mini --  is being built in the same factory in Mexico where past Chrysler success -- think 1.3 million cars sold from 2000 to 2010 -- the PT Cruiser was constructed. Fiat 500's aren't available at Chrysler Dodge Jeep dealers; you have to go to a Fiat "Studio" in an upscale shopping center to view and buy the car (you'll take it to a regular dealer for servicing). i've opined in the past that discontinuing the PT Cruiser (I have a 2007 Touring Edition) was a major mistake that Chrysler -- now owned by Fiat -- will rue. The PT Cruiser has everything I need and nothing I don't, like my Macs. Plus, it's not a tiny toy car like the Fiat 500, the Mini or VW's New Beetle.
Bottom line (as a conventional business book might say): pick up a copy of the very readable "Different" and come up with your own examples to match those of Youngme Moon's. When it comes to consuming, we're all marketing experts.

About the author
Youngme Moon is the Donald K. David Professor at Harvard Business School. One of HBS’s most popular teachers, Dr. Moon has received the Student Association Faculty Award for teaching excellence on multiple occasions. Dr. Moon’s research focuses on innovative consumer-marketing strategies and her work has been published widely, including in Harvard Business Review. She, her husband and their two sons live in Brookline, Mass.

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