Playing by different rules

Playing by the rules is a risky game, argues Mark Taylor. In times of recession it’s much more important to be unconventional.

It’s really not easy for us humans to be unconventional. Conventions rule how we think and behave – how we dress, what we learn, how we learn, what we eat, what time we get up and when we go to bed.

At key transition points in our lives (such as early childhood and early adulthood), some of these conventions may be challenged more actively, but, generally, being conventional seems to deliver an easier, more digestible life than standing out and being different.

Conventions are like arm bands. They give us the illusion of comfort by allowing us to think that we can somehow control events – and that somehow we can minimise risk and ensure success.

But now, as we face potentially the most difficult economic environment in at least 100 years, it is more important than ever to start thinking beyond the conventional, and to celebrate what makes you different from the rest.

Look into the whitewashed windows of empty stores up and down the country, and ask yourselves the question, ‘Were these stores unconventional businesses? Was there really any clear differentiation in what they did and why they did it?’

If you make something that everyone else makes and then just sell it in a similar way, people are unlikely to reward you with much margin or attention. There are simply too many competitors out there, too much consumer choice – as well as record levels of cynicism. People want and need clear navigation between the multitude of choices they are faced with every day.

In that setting, then, being unconventional is crucial to business success, for two very simple reasons: first, conventions help you fit in, while difference helps you stand out; second, conventions meet expectations, but thinking differently exceeds them.

Being unconventional is actually safer, therefore, than being conventional, because it’s by definition differentiated.

Being unconventional should form the central platform of any marketing and branding practitioner’s mindset and capabilities. We should all – in the words of the authors of Funky Business – be ‘business unusual’.

Being unconventional and breaking the rules is exciting and creative because it’s about new connections, not old conventions. Think about Hovis packaging, the Lloyds building in the City, the revolutionary design of the Apple Mac, Lush cosmetics, and Cadbury’s ‘Gorilla’ television campaign as good examples.

But where does being unconventional start?

In my view, it starts with defining the brand that a group of people wants to be.

All companies are unique. Their culture and experience create a DNA of differentiation that cannot be replicated. And if they are unique, they are by definition not following convention, and therefore inherently unconventional.

Take financial investment company Artemis as an example. In four years, it has become one of the best-known and highly regarded brands in the industry, because it knows what it is and what it is all about. It has an active approach to managing money and does not view itself as an ‘asset manager’ like the rest of the financial services industry, but as an ‘asset entrepreneur’.

That unconventional truth defined everything the business could do, and consequently everything it did in creating its brand identity was unconventional.

In today’s economic climate, being unconventional is a means of survival, particularly in the hardest-hit markets like financial services and retailing.

It’s a common experience however, to find many retailers still obsessed with the too-ings and fro-ings of their nearest and dearest competitors.

They have become pre-occupied with the latest consumer demands as revealed by research, but paralysed by changes in market context. This is one of most dangerous conventions of all: defining yourself by those around you.

Unconventional thinking and behaviour may appear in tough times to be the riskiest strategy of all, but in reality it is the only way to avoid losing the game.

How to be unconventional:

• Your brand is the purest form of ‘unconvention’ – so make sure you define it well
• Regularly review the rules in different walks of life and consider how things can be done differently
• Support employees’ isolation – being unconventional, or a part of something unconventional, can be a lonely, unfulfilling place from the outset
• Encourage unconventional behaviour by keeping life interesting – do something you’ve never done before to create a new perspective on a problem
• Read about the lives of interesting risk-takers, such as Orson Welles, Norman Foster, Dale Chihuly, Simon Doonan, and take inspiration from some truly lateral thinkers

Mark Taylor is chief creative strategist of Libertine

Hide Comments (2)Show Comments (2)
  • John Stone November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am


    Great thoughts. Institutional Unconventionality could be a new management approach promoted in business schools globally.

    One additional thought around “Support employees’ isolation” – by providing a regular forum for sharing unconventional thought a company can help build a culture around such thinking and demonstrate management genuine support for the cause. In larger organizations it could be even more potent with direct involvement from the executive office and/or regular competitions among the rank-and-file that reward such thinking.

    John Stone

  • Amy Fox November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    Mark I totally agree with you! That’s what we emphasise with our clients, as being ‘you’ is the most authentic uniqueness you can offer. My own blog post this week is concerned with similar ideas

  • Post a comment

Latest articles