We are in a boom time for creativity and reinvention of old ways, right?

An entertainment model turned on its head – from production, to release schedule modeling, and, of course, viewing habits in film and TV. Individuals reborn as digital creators and creatives with the ability to build cult followings through clips lasting seconds. Retail models and geo-targeting allow for access to everything, all the time, for pretty much anyone.

Disruption and differentiation at play is a good thing in the ‘me’ economy. More gratification. Easy adoption of and interest in new things. And talkable topics to add into the daily mix for everyone who sees and embraces the originality around them.

So mainstream brands, where are you in this?

Because the reality on the supermarket shelf is that the memo seems to have been missed, and instead of differentiation and original thinking, there is a sea of uniformity taking root.

Walk down any aisle and it can be frankly underwhelming. And not just in traditional sub-sectors where routine has settled in over the years, but in the newer spaces, too. Why do all seltzers, for example (not a thing two years ago), look like they have been produced and designed as part of a cooperative of sharing design cues? Who decided that veganism means that every product in the meat-free category is still called bacon, sausage, or burgers? Why does every brand extension (which, by the way, is not innovation) have to be salted caramel or chocolate orange?

We seem to be lacking courage. Missing the point that consumers love the new, and can sleepwalk past what amounts to wallpaper. And maybe missing what listening actually looks like and sounds like. A focus group offering an A or B alternative is not actually listening in the sense of creating a spark, especially when it comes at the close of a ‘creative’ process.

It’s time to leave some comfort zones behind and get back to some fundamental understanding of words we throw about too casually and to think about their meaning.

Branding is about creating something that has a distinctive point of difference, not something that’s often a waste of time; a brand personality puff piece defined as being ‘playful’ or ‘mischievous’. It won’t be either of those things as a product.

Innovation is about ‘new’, not ‘similar’. It is not about a small copycat safe step that will help you fit in, or a festive special edition of your nonfestive product (hello, toilet rolls).

And creativity is not about clever from an internalized point of view, but about being smart from what actually matters to make customers do, act, or try.

It’s not to say uniformity will fail if you miss these reality checks. Money is made in these spaces, of course. But success could be greater, growth could be noticeable; impact could be wow, and change could be landed. And isn’t that what marketing should be about, as an aim? About how brands last and become icons rather than having to fight for the annual right to stay on the shelf?

So I have a few suggestions that we should all embrace more to fit with the times of differentiation and growth in broader sectors and areas of life.

  • Line up the rivals, define the similarities, but then agree on the rules that could be broken rather than identify the parts that should be borrowed or homaged. From color to shape, message construct, flavors/varieties, etc. Unless your strategy is to undercut on price, does anyone need a new brand in any sector with low or no head-turning ability?
  • Deliberately find the questions that are incredibly hard to answer (or unexpected) and spend time drilling down on these to define interesting answers. Don’t park the questions that won’t give you what you want to hear. The ‘what if’ construct is the most useful of all mentalities and time spent here is the best time you will invest.
  • Disband the focus groups, watch customers in the aisles, and do more live listening – before your product is ready. EPOS data can be driven by convenience or familiarity, and when you see the 2-second dwell/no dwell time for some spaces, the only way to break that pattern is through stand-out and originality. And you only learn that from being the spy in the everyday and seeing how people act. Or don’t act.
  • See how you can break out of your self-set territory, if well established in one space, and think how your loyal customer base can follow you into new arenas. Innovation is still for leaders to pursue, and not just challengers. If you are owning the outdoor adventure clothing space, why not look at energy bars? If you are an entertainment brand, what about sofa snacking extensions?

And, yes, it does require some challenge, commitment, and confidence. You may need to work harder to get retail buyers to see your point of view, but research evidence, real-world data, and ambition count.

In parallel sectors, who would have thought launching a dating app that is only live one day a week would work? Kudos to Thursday for turning the norm there on its head. Or that Amazon would throw up a whole new dimension for ‘brick and mortar’ retail when they finally entered the high street and successfully merged online and offline seamlessly.

What about Mcdonald’s, using their distinctive assets to develop a best-in-class recruitment campaign telling students that no experience was necessary. Innovation isn’t a one-size-fits-all, but the best example of innovative thinking always resolves a tension or roadblock people never knew they had in the first place.

Retail habits are already shifting permanently online, in many cases, meaning stand-out matters even more when you can’t get touchy-feely with an item. The less originality you own, the more you will be one of many, rather than one of few.

Consumers can be like lemmings or zombies, following the crowd without thinking. We all fit that pattern, from time to time. But if no one is letting off a klaxon from the side, then they/we are not going to see or hear the positive distraction and the shiny new alternative route.

So brands, go find the klaxon!

Cover image source: Monstera