Marketing’s all the same when it tries to be different.
Recently, a high school graduation commencement speaker caused a stir by telling the graduates, “You are not special.” And by doing that, he did something special: He told these kids something few, if any, other people ever told them in their 18 years of living.
That one line made the news but few people read, or saw, the rest of the speech. I watched it online, and read the text. After his little admonition, he challenged the students to live extraordinary lives, concluding, “The sweetest joys of life, then, come only with the recognition that you’re not special. Because everyone is.”
And that lesson applies to our business as well. There’s simply too many products, too much marketing, too many people working in advertising for much of it to be special. So it’s worth hearing: Your copywriting talent isn’t special. Your agency isn’t special. Your product’s product or service isn’t special.
So how did we buy into the idea that we’re all special? What does it truly mean to stand out when everyone’s trying to be different?
It started with thinking that’s typical of Marketing 101: Everyone in advertising strived to make work that would “break through the clutter” or “cut through the noise” or “stand out in a sea of sameness.” But with so much marketing in the world, the problem is not that we want our work to be different. It’s just that when everyone screams, “look at me” all at the same time, no one gets the attention. And we’re all screaming in our own way.
But the desire to be special isn’t limited to the brands we work for. We’ve turned it on ourselves in the form of “personal branding.” It’s a cottage industry now, fueled by authors, bloggers, and marketers who preach the gospel of differentiation. At it’s core, it’s simply bragging, evolved. And it’s a game we all play.
Let’s face it: Nothing is special in a world where every new product is “artisanal” and everyone who makes decisions calls themselves a “curator.” You can be great at what you do — copywriting, designing, programming, strategic thinking. But it doesn’t make you a “ninja,” a “guru,” and it definitely doesn’t make you a “rock star.”
We all want to feel special. So if we don’t have the self-confidence to feel that way, we look to others to validate our specialness. That’s why there are so many advertising awards shows. But even those don’t always separate special ideas from ones that aren’t. At this year’s Cannes Lions, out of 1,784 radio entries, the Grand Prix winner was picked because it used a high-frequency mosquito-repelling sound effect — the utility of which supposedly made it special. The only problem was that the idea had been done before. At least three times.
Yes, once in a while in advertising, if we’re determined and lucky, we will do something special. And even then, it will be fleeting and ephemeral, with an equal chance of being recognized and remembered by 10 people or perhaps a million, depending on how much money or power is behind it.
Mostly though, being “special” is an illusion. We all succumb to the desire to be special, and are blinded to the reality that we’re not. I’ll bet you’re working on a project or product right now that someone (other than you) thinks is special. It’s important to that person or client because their money is paying for it, even if the results turn out to be less-than-stellar.
Break down most marketing strategies and you’ll notice brands like to say, “We’re special. And if only we told the world how special we are, we’d be huge.” Most agencies have a website that says, “We’re special because we think differently.” Guess what? Your brand’s best-of-breed solutions and your agency’s proprietary process are pure bullshit. And if you don’t know it, odds are everyone else does.
That doesn’t mean, however, we can’t strive for greatness. We simply need to start from a different mindset.
Perhaps if agencies and brands started from the position of “We’re not special. Can we become special to those we want to reach?” it might be better. It also means we know we’d have to work harder to truly be different, or make a difference.
If that doesn’t work, we’ll always have our mothers. We’re always special to them. Too bad they don’t usually make up the target audience.