Which is more important – to be better or different?

Which is more important – to be better or different?

The answer, of course, is that it’s important – better – to be both.

What, however, if you had to choose one or the other?

I liked the answer given by the marketing VP of a Californian software business, who recently become a new client after reading an interview that I’d forgotten I’d given – about how Calm, the sleep and meditation app, managed to generate so much more buzz, coverage and attention than its rivals … by setting out to be different. The interview was in this post, titled: Getting creative with PR: Calm.com shows the way.

This VP’s answer was clear:

“I’m a firm believer that products should be better than the competition, but, more importantly, different. Nobody pays attention to better. People always pay attention to different.”

The problem for his business wasn’t being better, since he already felt confident that it WAS better than its rivals. The problem was that not enough folks knew this.

“We recognize the importance of being different”, he explained “… in order to be recognized.”

And that, he said, was why he’d approached and hired Think Inc.

Seth Godin, the leading marketing guru of our age, answers the same question – in different words but a similar vein – in his book, Purple Cow:

“In a crowded marketplace, fitting in is failing. In a busy marketplace, not standing out is that same as being invisible.”

In the affluent West, at least, the fortunate among us live in a world of over-abundance, where there is too much of everything, and a brimming mass of endless me-too products, with little or no meaningful difference between them.

In our modern age of over-supply and information overload, when attention is the scarcest resource, there has never been more truth in the mantra, “Get noticed or die”.

This, you might say, is hardly a new idea. Raymond Rubicam, co-founder of the iconic ad agency Young & Rubicam, urged his team back in 1923 to “Resist the usual”. Roy Whittier, his chief copywriter, put it even more boldly, declaring, “In advertising, the beginning of greatness is to be different, and the beginning of failure is to be the same.”

But they were both talking about advertising. Nowadays, the same imperative applies to the product, service or brand itself. The differentness today needs to be baked into the brand or product from the start rather than sprinkled on at the marketing stage.

Sometimes, of course, the best or even only way to be better is by being meaningfully different. Different is not just better than better … Better IS different.

This is the gist of the book, Different: Escaping the Competitive Herd, by Youngme Moon, a professor at the Harvard Business School.

Setting out to be meaningfully different, she argues, is not just the only marketing strategy worth considering but also the only business strategy.

If you’re not different, you’re nothing.

You don’t have to be a marketing guru or professor to understand this.

Bernadine Evaristo is the first black woman to win the renowned Booker Prize for fiction.

In her new memoir, Manifesto, Evaristo recalls how she started working life as an actor, only making the “transition to print” when she was well into her thirties.

Breaking into writing, however, proved a struggle. “No one in mainstream writing cared about a black female poet”, she recalls.

It was only when she set out to be daring and different that she finally got noticed and made progress. So it was that her “first big break in publishing” came when she wroteThe Emperor’s Babe (2001), a historical novel that stood out from the literary herd by the fact that it was written in verse form.

Evaristo, of course, is not a brand or product, at least in the conventional sense. By setting out to be different, however, she has gone on to become one of Britain’s highest profile and most respected writers.

You don’t even have to be an acclaimed writer to grasp the importance of standing out in a crowded space.

I enjoyed the news story I read the other day about an election candidate in rural India, who carries a fish – fresh every day – as she goes door to door campaigning for votes. “Every morning I get the best fish from the market and start my campaign”, she explained. “This way people will remember me.”

Since many voters in rural India have trouble reading, they will also recognise their preferred candidate by a symbol – such as a fish – placed beside the candidate’s name on the ballot paper.

The key takeaway? If you want to get noticed – and remembered – always carry a fish.

In the long run, of course, there’s the argument that being better is also the best marketing of all.

Or, as Michael Acton Smith, co-founder of Calm, has put it, “The best marketing is a world-class product”. This in turn recalls the saying that marketing is the tax you pay for having an unremarkable product. All valid points.

In the short and medium run, however, and if you want to survive long enough to REACH the long run, being different may be not just equally but even MORE important than merely being better.

In the long run, therefore, it might be better to be better than different but in the short and medium run, at least, I would argue, different is better than better.