Nonconformity and the Art of Simplicity

October 22, 2008 | blog | By Mike Sullivan

Be it a company or a product, have you ever noticed that when something new comes along, you often hear the phrase, “It’s the new this!” or “It’s the new that!” For some reason, it seems we’re conditioned to only recognize new things in relation to other things we comprehend that are just like it. It’s a physiological process that happens deep within the parietal cortex of our brains where tiny individual neurons encode categorical information into the circuitry of our minds so later we can recognize the meaning of the things we see. Really. I looked it up.

Maybe that’s why it’s so hard to have an engaging new idea. So challenging to be different. So difficult to stand out from the pack. As much as we say we want different, do we really? Vanilla is the most popular flavor of ice cream with a 29% share. You know what’s second?Chocolate – at 8.9%! At the core, we’re creatures of habit. We like to feel safe. The status quo is comfortable. It’s easy. But you know what else? Over time, it’s boring. And that’s the Achilles heel of homogenization and putting everything in a perfect little box.

It’s also the big opportunity for every challenger brand out there. Sure, Vanilla owns 29% of the market and sits 3x up on second place. But that still leaves 71% for Bubble Gum, Coffee Heath Bar Crunch, Cookie Dough, Jamoca Almond Fudge, Phish Food,Pralines & Cream and all the other flavors.

When you’re a challenger brand you basically have two choices: you can embrace sameness, hang on to your rung for dear life and try not to slide, or you can shake things up. Run counter to convention. Use your efficiency, or agility, or bravery or whatever you have that’s different and better to break out and get noticed. Sometimes that means creating a whole new category. Look at iPod. Amazon. HBO.ebay. But interestingly, sometimes it’s simply going back to the basics that all your competitors have “moved beyond.”

I happen to think the mark of any great cheeseburger is meat, cheese, bun. With a little ketchup. That’s just me, but that’s what I like. It goes back to my childhood where every Friday night, my dad cooked burgers on the grill. Thick, juicy, hand patted burgers with a Kraft Single on top and a plain top bun. That’s why I like Dairy Queen. That’s why I like the burgers I make. I don’t wantcranberry chutney or roasted truffles or as Burger King is hawking now, mushrooms and Swiss cheese on my burger. I just want the basics. And apparently I’m not alone. Just look at the growth of new basic burger places like Five Guys and Mooyah!

Yesterday, I read a quote by the owner of a little place called Burger Joint in San Francisco that has recently grown to four locations. He said, “We don’t want to be a restaurant. We want to be a place where you get a burger.”

Sometimes simplicity executed well is the greatest nonconformity there is.

Mike Sullivan

President at LOOMIS, the country’s leading challenger brand advertising agency


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