Sunday, July 6, 2008

Product Differentiation

In the world of retail and commerce, originality, quality, and appeal of merchandise must be carefully formulated and executed so that potential customers and patrons do not feel alienated, confused, belittled, discriminated against or unimpressed. Depending on the product or service offered, price can influence the degree of the public's enthusiasm.

Thriving in clothing or restaurant businesses, for instance, requires an adherence to already established standards and products on the content level, but to exceed everyone else in content quality and presentation (using better materials and ingredients, maintaining a healthy relationship with employees, hiring quick-thinking staff). A white blouse might be a white blouse no matter how you cut it, but it must look good and fit properly. Similarly, a hamburger may be two buns and a beef patty no matter how you bite into it, but it needs to taste a certain way. Business persons who want to re-invent the wheel are certainly free to do so, but unless quality and appeal outweigh potential confusion, the only response they'll get is "don't fix what isn't broken."

A hamburger with baguette bread? Hmmm....I know it's served this way in a few dining establishments, but if you re-think the bun but don't re-think the beef, you're probably going to get fewer repeat customers.

It dawned on me today that as much as human beings yearn for acceptance and a sense of belonging in a larger group, the desire to be unique is strong enough to alienate the audience. The thought actually originated with thinking about goals and dreams I've tossed to the wayside due to the sheer impracticality of retaining them. Specifically, to seek and acquire the kinds of emotional bonds I've craved for a long time.

America was founded on principles of self-agency and individuality, among others. Reclining beneath the "life liberty, and pursuit of happiness" tenet is the notion that being better than everyone else (or sometimes just different in a rewarding way) is preferable to being just like everyone else. Dance to the bass line of your own groove; snack to the percentage of your own sodium needs; read to the themes and plotlines of your own preferences. In terms of self-expression, being different (unique) is commendable and frequently refreshing. With respect to human interaction, however, being unique has a tendency to get lost in transmission.*


I pride myself on being different--to the extent that I must risk coming across as disarming or plain weird. While I wouldn't necessarily alter my behavior or favorite conversational topics just to increase the chances I can reclaim those discarded dreams, I understand now that the reason I've failed on every mission is that I am unique rather than above average. Someone who is unique might be the best in the time zone, but this person is also unpredictable intellectually, emotionally, and behaviorally.** Someone who is above average will be the best in the room (and even zip code) and is much more predictable. By no means is this kind of predictability steeped in convention or monotony. Someone who is above average can be every bit as original and new as the unique. The difference is that the unique person functions along a separate source of motive and intent as well as modus operandi. The above average person exhibits the same motive and intent as the average, but his/her modus operandi can differ.

For people trying to make connections, originality, quality, and appeal are less daunting when you know what is likely to be behind the curtain. How many people are willing to venture towards the unknown?

*Excepting cases where your deviations from societal norms are shared by enough (analog or digital) people such that you don't feel completely alone.

**I realize that a unique person can become predictable given enough time. If you spend enough energy and time with such an individual, you can better comprehend them and anticipate how they will react to a number of situations.

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