Jeanette Winterson wrote in her autobiography that her mother despaired of her, saying, “Why be happy when you could be normal?” Mrs Winterson saw conformity as a virtue. In her worldview, Jeanette’s job was to fit in rather than be fulfilled by being herself. Jeanette couldn’t help it though – she wasn’t trying to be different, she was different from the sort of girl her mother expected her to be. Accepting the status quo wasn’t an option for her. Good for her! We marketers generally don’t accept the status quo either, and we take pride in finding ways to differentiate our offerings versus competitors. Good for us! And yet, I find myself increasingly wondering whether aiming to be different from competitors is the right battle to fight.

Granted, there are well-developed sectors where it is essential to be different. But then there are so many categories where no one does a great job, where a business that just tries to be decent would win hearts and minds, and willing rather than distrustful customers. Personally, I resent businesses that levy a booking fee for their own venue – it doesn’t cost Odeon any more to sell me a cinema ticket online than if I buy from the cinema staff, but they charge a fee, not just per booking but per ticket. It feels opportunistic – ticket agencies charge booking fees so they’ve seen a chance to extract more money from cinema-goers. Then there are mobile phone networks that still offer their best deals to new customers only. Mustn’t forget banks that default your savings to the lowest available interest rate – that’s almost all of them. You’ll have your own pet hates.

Meanwhile in marketing departments lots of fancy differentiating ideas are being dreamed up, such as novel combinations of cashbacks and bonuses, like Santander’s 123 account (though I’m darned if I know what need it fulfils). Lloyds offers free software to help you manage your money. Then there are all those reward schemes offering benefits from other brands, like discounts in restaurants. (Funny how these brands stick together – O2’s rewards scheme gives you discounts at the Odeon.)

Sure, these offerings give the brand something to talk about. If a marketer’s main job is to think of something to say, then I can see the appeal. It’s certainly better than “There’s not much to choose between us and our competitors – we all do pretty much the same thing.” Though I suspect many a marketer has said as much to their agency, no one has yet put this message in an ad.

Where a whole category is samey, like retail banking, and customers are generally not happy, there’s a great opportunity for marketers to help their business to be better – not just through distinctive advertising or a perfectly crafted brand personality or a bolted-on rewards scheme, useful though they are, but by changing the things that customers dislike. This approach, using sources of customer dissatisfaction, is covered in depth by Seán Meehan and Paddy Barwise in their books Simply Better and Beyond the Familiar.

Often, the things customers don’t like are glossed over inside businesses. Sometimes it’s because they are hard to change – limited by systems, or just accepted industry practices. Some issues aren’t truly heard because they are seen as the usual gripes, familiar complaints that always come up. We’ve all heard versions of: “Why don’t they stop all this advertising and just make it cheaper?” But a brave marketer can see it from the customer’s point of view, and mobilise the business to respond.

For years, every consumer group BT ran started with a general moan about line rental – people hated it because they had no choice but to “rent” the line. I’m ashamed to say that, back in the 90s, as a marketing consultant to BT, I would mention this in passing and move quickly on – it wasn’t the point of the research, and besides, that’s the way it was. Wrong! Eventually someone at BT decided if people didn’t like it then an alternative was possible, and they brought out integrated pricing packages with no separate line rental element. Competitive and regulatory pressures may have played a part, but at least someone inside BT heard it afresh and acted on it. That’s one benefit of bringing people into your marketing team from outside the sector: they think more like customers. That lasts until they “understand the sector”, that’s to say, until they go native and stop hearing the gripes.

This is where marketing leadership comes in. We all know that a marketer’s job is more than communications and lead generation. Even if you have to settle for an undifferentiated proposition, you can help to make sure the company delivers better than its competitors for your target audience, so that leads convert and customers are retained. Even where marketers are relatively powerless, they can bring the voice of the customer in to the business.

Of course you don’t have to be in the marketing department to take a customer-centric approach, as illustrated by London 2012. Hyperbole knows no bounds to describe the triumph of the London 2012 Olympic Games. It’s universally agreed they were wonderful. How did they do it? Their customer-oriented approach, seeking good rather than different, was certainly a key element. Soon after the games were awarded, nine different customer groups were identified – spectators, athletes, sponsors, media, technical staff, and so on. Each group was asked three simple questions: What do you expect at London 2012? What would delight you? What would ruin it for you? Turns out, a good night’s sleep is the most important thing for an athlete – and that basketball players’ beds are never big enough. Problem solved, with bed extensions. It’s why we all got travelcards. Getting around London was a worry for everyone, but many athletes have no money and worry about what they’ll do when their event has finished at any major games, so for London they were given travelcards for the entire duration. Anyone could do it, but no one did, until now. A brilliant use of old-fashioned market research – and they acted on what they heard.

So maybe the way to stand out is to try less hard to be different, and simply aim to please customers more. Listen to the things they hate, and get the business to change it. Marketers who focus on customers rather than brand personality or communications and the business will help to create brands that are better and different.

Comment, Thought leadership | January 2013