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February 26, 2014
Conformity Is Killing Your Brand
Have you ever noticed how many decisions are made based on the expectations of others? Children go to law school because of mom and dad. Teenagers seek out significant others because that’s what you’re “supposed to do." And every car dealer features flying graphics, annoying sound effects, and booming voiceovers in their ads.
Conformity can have a positive impact on social groups. It helps people feel like they belong and encourages communities to act as one.
But when it comes to marketing, conformity kills.
You Want To Belong
Solomon Asch famously conducted an experiment in 1951 to test how much social pressure from a larger group can influence a person to conform. The study featured one participant who sat in a room among seven others who were secretly in on the test. Everyone viewed two images: one featuring a target line, and another featuring three comparison lines. Of the three comparison lines, two were of varying lengths and one matched the length of the target line.
The participants were then asked which comparison line matched the length of the target line. One by one the accomplice participants would each name the incorrect line until the real participant was questioned.
The answer was obvious, but according to SimplyPsychology.com, “75% of participants conformed at least once…” and “On average, about one third (32%) of the participants who were placed in this situation went along and conformed with the clearly incorrect majority on the critical trials.”
Buck the Norm
When you consider your marketing, what industry norms are you conforming to?
Every industry has them. Beer commercials tend to feature the “glory” shot of the precious liquid flowing from a frosty bottle. Car commercials showcase gorgeous vehicles gliding through lonely backcountry.
In the hypercompetitive world in which brands live today, sameness equals death. Fundamentally, brands in today’s cluttered market are faced with two options: scream louder or be different.
Unless you have an enormous marketing budget, screaming louder is seldom an effective choice. But entire industries can be uprooted when a brand has the audacity to stand for something different.
Or put into the words of your target: “When I need ___________________, (your company name) is the only choice.”
Fear Breeds Conformity
It’s easy to say your brand should be different. But it’s far more difficult to actually be different.
According to SimplyPsychology.com, “people conform for two main reasons: because they want to fit in with the group (normative influence) and because they believe the group is better informed than they are (informational influence).”
In any social or industry group, it rarely feels good to be different. And when making important marketing decisions, it is tempting to believe that the larger and better-equipped competitor somehow knows something you don’t (hint: they rarely do).
To take your brand down the road of Different, you must first recognize that you will feel better by conforming to your industry, but that customers will respond better if you stand for something different. Below are three tips to become aware of your own conformity and then pursue Different.
Run Away
Start by conducting a thorough competitive review of the top players in your industry. Common themes will immediately become apparent. If you’re smart, you’ll run in the opposite direction.
Question Everything
Create a list of the obvious marketing norms in your industry. Do you always have to show a smiling customer holding your product? Do you have to use words like “quality” and “care”?
Embrace Risk
Create a list of the “touchy subjects” in your industry and then challenge whether they are really off limits. Before Geico, humor was unheard of in the insurance industry. Now everyone uses the tactic.
As humans, it is unnatural for us to buck the trend and stand for something different. Just ask the hordes of hipsters who in unison desperately seek to be unique and end up looking the same. But if you’re willing to take a step back and explore how your own conformity might be hurting business, your courage could pay dividends.

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Jonathan Lewis is partner, Vice President and Strategy Director at McKee Wallwork + Co. Advertising, winner of the 2015 Ad Age Small Agency of the Year SW and Campaign of the Year awards. Jonathan’s firm specializes in turning around companies who are stalled, stuck or stale, publishing two books on the topic including When Growth Stalls and Power Branding. Follow Jonathan @JonathanLewis11.
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