Creative + Content

Breaking Convention

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Lee Schmidt

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I entered my freshman year of high school at 97 pounds. I stood 4 feet 11 and ¾ inches tall. Joining the judo club was as inevitable for me as the rising sun. As a beginner—a white belt—I learned a maneuver I would never forget. It’s called “tomoe nage,” pronounced “toe-moe-na-gee.”

Here’s how it works. When your competitor charges toward you, you place your right foot on his abdomen while you fall back to the judo mat. Using your arms and his momentum, you throw your challenger over your body and let him sail to the mat behind you.

After some practice, I tried it on my instructor, a much older and more experienced brown belt. It worked flawlessly. He simply was not expecting it from a freshly minted white belt.

Tomoe nage allowed me to leverage my opponent’s strength to my advantage.

One way for a challenger brand to succeed is to use a marketing tactic that shares this approach. This tactic is called breaking convention. Most likely, you’ve heard of it. But perhaps you haven’t thought of it in all its many incarnations.

Adam Morgan, author of Eating the Big Fish, has identified six types of conventions that surround any product or service category. They are:

  • Conventions of representation
  • Conventions of medium
  • Conventions of product performance
  • Conventions of product and service experience
  • Conventions of neighborhood and network
  • Conventions of relationship

When you deliberately break one of these conventions, you can differentiate your product from the towering pillars of strength that dominate your category. And thus gain leverage—at least short-term advantage—in the marketplace.

Let’s look at one of these in particular: Conventions of representation or, in other words, how your brand portrays itself. These include advertising, packaging, logo and name. And let’s sharpen our focus even further by looking at that last one—a brand’s name.

Brands set themselves apart by using names that break convention. Consider the software industry. Microsoft, Qualcomm, VMWare, Symantec and Linux all sound corporate, boring and uninspired. But that’s not the case with Six Apart. The company’s founders, Ben and Mena Trott, chose an intriguing name for their software company, known for creating Movable Type blogware. Curious as to what the name means? Of course you are. The company’s co-founders were born, you guessed it, six days apart.

When a company resists convention, says Adam Morgan, “It signals not just its desire to be different, but also”¦its intent to get us to look at the category and the possibilities of the category in a fresh way.”

Musicians have understood this for years. Rock has given us imaginative band names such as the Strawberry Alarm Clock, The Sex Pistols, the Clash and Tonto’s Expanding Head Band. More recently, one recording artist knew the name Stefani Germanotta would do nothing to help jumpstart her fledgling career. So instead, she took the name her friends had been calling her and ran with it. And the Lady Gaga brand was launched into the stratosphere.

David Letterman signaled change in the late night talk show category when he created a company called Space Age Meats to produce “The “David Letterman Show.” What did meat have to do with the show? Nothing really, other than that it encapsulated Letterman’s offbeat brand of humor. And it illustrated clear resistance to innocuous names exemplified by Jay Leno’s current company, Big Dog Productions.

Letterman’s show failed. But that didn’t stop Dave. Years later, when he introduced his current talk show, he chose another non sequitur for his production company, “World Wide Pants.” This time the show succeeded and World Wide Pants won a 1991 Peabody Award for taking “one of TV’s most conventional and least inventive forms—the talk show—and infusing it with freshness and imagination.”

With a differentiating name that represented his singular sense of humor, Dave’s challenger brand jumpstarted late night talk in ways that others emulate more than 20 years later.

Here’s one final name I’m sure you’ve heard of. Its competitors are many: Target, Pier 1 Imports, World Market, Ashley Furniture and Pottery Barn. All of these names are explicit, not evocative, and provoke little, if any, curiosity. But IKEA stands out.

Did its 17-year-old founder realize this in 1943 when he created the company? Maybe, maybe not. Regardless, IKEA lives on as a prime example of how an unconventional name represents an unconventional company, even after nearly 70 years in business.

IKEA, because I suspect you’re curious, takes it name from its founder’s name, Ingvar Kamprad. The E and A are the initials, respectively, of the Swedish farm and village where Ingvar grew up.

Author, humorist, poet and charter member of the famous Algonquin Round Table Dorothy Parker said, “If all the girls at the Yale Prom were laid end to end, I wouldn’t be a bit surprised.”

That doesn’t have a great deal to do with this subject. But it is a good joke and it does come from someone who knew a thing or two about breaking convention.

Here’s another good quote. This one from legendary ad man George Lois: “The defeat of habit by originality overcomes everything.” Well, I don’t know about overcoming “everything,” George. But when you break convention with the discovery of an original approach, you give your brand leverage. Leverage like the tomoe nage maneuver that helped me over come my opponent. Leverage that can give you “the jump” on your competitor. And help jumpstart your brand.


Lee Schmidt

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