Clark Kent

24 August 2012

Clark Kent – Role Model? The Dubious Virtues of “Leading” from the Rear

by Freddy Tran Nager, Founder of Atomic Tango + Differentiation Advocate; image by Williamwiki via Wikimedia Commons

Thanks to the jury in the Apple-Samsung case, product differentiation is now mandated in the marketplace (at least in the smartphone industry). Unfortunately, differentiation — and creativity and daring — are harder to find despite every company’s claim of “leadership”…

Did you know that 99.999% of all companies are “leaders” or “leading providers”? I discovered that by reading their press releases.


When you challenge these “leaders” to actually do something, they ditch their super capes and don thick glasses. “Oh, you want me to make a decision? Well, uh, what’s the market leader doing? We’ll just do that.”

Rock on, Clark.

I wish business school had taught me how to lead by following. Oh, wait, they did: those were called “best practices.”

The Extraordinariness Continues…

While treading water in tepid seas of blandness, these masters of conformity avoid advertising, claiming that “word of mouth” will score them customers. You can just hear consumers mouthing, “OMG, you must buy from them! They’re just like everyone else!”

I’ve experienced this mind-searing boldness up-close and personal. When I was a young copywriter, these leaders would ask me to state that they’re “next generation” and “cutting edge” (and only leaders use terms that went out of fashion during the Ford administration). I would present several options, and they’d invariably select the safest, most conservative one. Or sometimes they’d reject ’em all and tell me to just copy what the competition had written.

Enter the Challenger Brands…

Now look who’s spoiling the mediocrity fest by spiking the punch and putting salsa in the tamales: smaller companies who fully acknowledge that they’re NOT market leaders.

Instead, these challenger brands strive to be different, dismissing “best practices” and taking risks. They actually advertise ’cause they want people to know they exist. You’d think they’d stop there, but no, their ads go on to win awards and views and shares and thumbs-up.

Consumers who also view themselves as challengers will buy challenger brand products for a higher price than they’d pay for “leading” products. And soon more people look at the challengers, and more higher priced goods get sold, and the challengers suddenly become market leaders in sales, not just words. And you know what happens as a result?

That’s right: those higher prices cause inflation, and everyone knows inflation sucks.

So there. That’s what you get for listening to nonconformists: inflation.

So let’s all play it safe by being leading leaders who lead as leading providers of leadership. You can’t go wrong there. Or, really, anywhere at all.

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Freddy is the Founder & Creative Strategist of Atomic Tango. He also teaches graduate-level marketing communication courses at the University of Southern California (go Trojans!), shoots pool somewhat adequately, and herds cats. Freddy received his BA from Harvard and his MBA from USC.

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