Strive For Different, Not Better

Grammar fans howled when Apple unveiled its “Think Different” advertising slogan in 1997, arguing that proper usage demanded that it be “Think Differently.” But for a successful product launch, it is indeed wise to think “different.” In a world where a handful of brands dominate their product categories, and where a popular product or service almost immediately spawns dozens or hundreds of better-faster-cheaper competitors, how is your new product going to get noticed? It’s always better to be better, but it’s even better to be different.

Examples abound. The late, lamented Flip video camera was different. While the leading makers of video camcorders slugged it out with such incremental feature improvements as wireless connectivity, bigger color display screens, zoom lenses, and so on, the Flip set itself apart by doing just one thing – taking video — and focusing on ease of use. Within three years of its debut the Flip owned 22 percent of the video camera market in terms of unit sales. Millions of people bought Flips for $100 to $200 each because they wanted something different from the morass of nearly indistinguishable camcorders made by better-known companies. (The Flip was killed in 2011 even though sales were still rising, but that’s another story.)

Another example: MP3 players. Today, Apple owns more than 70 percent of the market, and its devices are seamlessly linked to the world’s largest music store. MP3 players are built into every smartphone. Literally thousands of no-name competitors are flooding the market with cheap players. Who in their right mind would introduce an expensive new single-purpose MP3 player? Someone who thinks different, that’s who.

Instead of trying to do what the market leaders do, let alone trying to do it better, a German company took a different approach. It targeted the market segment catering to children (or, more to the point, to their parents and grandparents). Most kid-friendly MP3 players are garishly colored toys, ruggedized and drool-proofed to withstand a toddler’s wrath. What’s different about hörbert MP3 player? Take a look: hoerbert.com.

hoerbert

The hörbert goes after the design-conscious audiophile parent who is willing to hand over $300 for a simple, rugged, battery-powered MP3 player made of classic, natural, organic wood. It features a built-in loudspeaker along with simple pushbuttons, a toggle switch, a volume knob, and a hidden SD memory card that holds hours of music or audio books.

The hörbert is different. And I bet the profit margins are different too, compared to other MP3 players. It definitely won’t knock Apple out of the music business, but on the other hand it’s unlikely to be another Microsoft Zune or Dell DJ.

The Harvard business professor Clayton Christensen (author of “The Innovator’s Dilemma”) puts it this way: Once a company succeeds with a product, it typically tries to keep sustaining that success by adding incrementally better features. And, Christensen says, when it comes to “sustaining innovations,” the incumbents nearly always win. But at the same time, it opens the door to disruptive innovators who take a different path. The innovator who is willing to be different has an edge over the incumbents, Christensen says.

The designers of the hörbert knew that millions of MP3 players are sold each year. They also observed a resurgence of interest among new parents in simple, organic, wooden toys. (Check out the toy section at Whole Foods.) By associating the two, they came up with a completely different take on the category.

Now, contrast this with the recent unveiling of Microsoft’s The Surface tablet. Yes, Microsoft is once again getting into the hardware arena, this time going up against Apple’s iPad. Remember what happened the last few times Microsoft entered the hardware business for a me-too attack on Apple icon? The Microsoft Kin went after the iPhone. Talk about wrong numbers: It was killed in less than two months, $1 billion in development down the drain. Before that there was the Zune, Microsoft’s iPod and iTunes killer. Microsoft officially killed the Zune last week. With both the Kin and the Zune, Microsoft was trying to be incrementally better, not different.

Sustaining innovations? The Surface, Microsoft says, is 0.1 millimeter thinner than the Apple iPad! (Alas, it’s also heavier than the iPad.) And unlike the iPad, The Surface has a full, physical keyboard, hidden on the underside of the clever, innovative click-on magnetic cover. It runs Microsoft Excel spreadsheets and Flash videos.

Will The Surface succeed? It’s too soon to tell. But here’s the key point to remember: In consumer products, particularly when there is a dominant, entrenched market leader, trying to compete with incrementally better features is very difficult. It’s hard to make money, because a price war is inevitable, and it’s hard to capture the consumer’s interest. Apple had the right idea, if not the proper grammar: think different.