Some phrases are overused and easily dismissed. You fast become immune to anyone arguing you should “just be yourself” or demanding to know what you “stand for”.
It’s similar when you think of organisations, and tiresome to hear the same old lines trotted out; but trite though they may be, such sentiments can be a healthy dose of reality when it comes to striving for that all-important combination of differentiation and success.
As long as there's been consumer technology, companies creating and selling gadgets and services have regularly stumbled in these areas, and it’s frequently unclear what a device, company or service truly represents. Instead of playing to its strengths, a company might choose to ape rivals, for all manner of reasons.
Perhaps putting on someone else’s clothes — even if they’re a bit tight around the arse — seems like a good bet, especially if that someone else happens to be rich and successful; and basking in someone else’s spotlight must sound great if yours has grown dim, due to an inability to pay for food to feed the hamsters powering the generator.
Syntax Era wars
Even though I was young at the time, I recall being very aware of this phenomenon in the 1980s. Acorn and Sinclair were kicking each-other’s teeth out, while American companies lurked, waiting for something to go wrong. In an instant (from an industry standpoint), the consumer-friendly Sinclair went for the business market, Acorn made a play for consumers, both monumentally screwed up, and the broken remains of a country’s computer industry were ground into the dirt. Amstrad hoovered up bits of Sinclair, Acorn became an Olivetti subsidiary, and the Americans then bulldozed everything out of the way with their PCs.
It’s perhaps fanciful to argue either Acorn or Sinclair might have still existed today, given the path of home computing and the sheer dominance of PCs and Windows, but they certainly did themselves no favours in forgetting the plot, losing sight of what made them great in the first place.
The Clone Wars
Today more than ever, this remains the great industry equaliser — and no-one is immune. Recently, Twitter had its IPO, and now every quarter the press and investors ask “big questions” about the service, notably how it will continue to grow insanely rapidly and attract advertisers with infinitely deep wallets. Judging by a design Twitter was recently testing, its answer is apparently “be like Facebook”. But we already have a Facebook. If people want to use Facebook, they’ll go to the Facebook website or use a Facebook app and get on with a damn good Facebooking. Chances are, if you’re using Twitter, it’s largely because you don’t want to use Facebook.
Elsewhere, we see Samsung, photocopiers ready to spring into action whenever Apple does pretty much anything, watching its profits slide, in part because it’s trying to be a clone rather than something unique; BlackBerry tried to become the cool kid, despite being the enterprise wonk and has almost vanished; and Microsoft has similarly gotten a good kicking from trying to out-Apple Apple, while people increasingly seem happy with the real thing. (And as for Apple, anyone who’s used iOS games controllers will be well aware Cupertino’s finest even attempting to ‘be’ Nintendo has worked out about as well as your dad trying to ‘be’ a wedding DJ, while high on wine, adrenaline and a Fatboy Slim CD.)
That isn’t to say that organisations shouldn’t try doing something different, moving into new fields, or cleverly iterating on things that already exist. But when we already have one ‘thing’, and especially one that happens to be popular, high quality and pretty much entrenched, we usually don’t need another – because unique approaches, individuality and differentiation vanish when everyone’s trying to be the same; and if you’re the company making that popular, established thing, you’d be wise to not lose sight of that while going on a hunt for someone else’s shiny baubles.