How to resist the great ‘saming’

Published: 26-Apr-2012

Often it’s not outdated packaging that is the problem, it’s the sameness of designs across brands, says Vicky Bullen

Often it’s not outdated packaging that is the problem, it’s the sameness of designs across brands, says Vicky Bullen

A couple of weeks ago I received a call from a global cosmetics house asking about new packaging for one of its most famous brands. It felt it had grown a bit stale and needed to be made more current.

It soon struck me that the problem was not so much that its packaging was jaded, but that it was so similar to many of its rivals that if you covered the name, you wouldn’t be able to tell which brand it was. In the entire sector there were only a couple of brands with distinctive propositions and distinctive visual properties.

Then I realised this ‘saming’ isn’t limited to cosmetics packaging. Look at any woman’s magazine and you’ll find screeds of interchangeable ads featuring interchangeable models and interchangeable imagery saying interchangeable things for cosmetics products that are pretty much, well... interchangeable.

And it’s not just the marketing of cosmetics that has become homogenised. It’s true of too many categories: beer, telecoms, over the counter medicines, financial services, cars. When you think about it, a centre of gravity consensus is emerging in many markets where everyone clings to a strip of safe but similar ground and no one dares to be very different.

Differentiation is supposed to be one of the best ways for companies to compete. Presumably no brand manager worth their salt sets out to deliberately launch me-too products with me-too communications. So what is going on here?

After all the problem doesn’t even stop at marketing. This ‘saming’ is a broader cultural phenomenon affecting almost every form you can think of. Who hasn’t felt the twinge of disappointment that comes from travelling to some exotic location only to find that not only are the shops in the high street pretty much the same, so are the brands they sell.

It seems to me that the roots of this go deep. Two obvious culprits are globalisation and the internet. Diversity, in culture as in biology, tends to flourish when populations or ideas are isolated. The connectedness of the world we live in means that we are immersed in increasingly similar stimuli the world over. And if by chance someone does have a genuinely new idea, the whole world will know about it in moments.

But it would be too simplistic to blame the internet. The best and most lucid explanation of ‘saming’ I have heard came from a fashion lecturer I met a couple of years ago. I asked him how is it that trends happen? How is it that we all wear white or cerise or berets or short hemlines at exactly the same time?

He pointed out the obvious truth that most fashion designers are similar sorts of people with similar sorts of interests, educated and trained in similar places. But that’s only the beginning of a series of institutional biases, cultural interactions and feedback loops that eventually result in us all wearing the same clothes at the same time.

Most of those designers don’t just summon up their ideas from the ether, they go to the same prediction centres and futurologists, most of whom apply similar techniques of analysis to similar data. Designers then embody those ideas in their collections.

Then the collections are launched to the fashion press. Journalists aren’t interested in diversity, they want stories and they want themes. So they ignore differences in the collections and focus on similarities. Pirates and the high street chains read the fashion press, select the most marketable looks and copy them within a matter of days. Within a matter of weeks they are in the shops. Within a matter of months we are all wearing puff ball skirts and acid brights.

To return to cosmetics packaging, it is clear that brand managers are facing huge personal, psychological, cultural and historical pressures, all of which constantly press in the direction of sameness. They act as an invisible hand that hauls back anything that tries to be different and smothers originality.

Of course it’s not about being different for difference’s sake. There are times you absolutely need to respect market conventions. For instance new players often need to operate within category norms to gain credibility. You need to know when and where and how to dial up and dial down points of difference as appropriate.

However marketers cannot break free of the saming hand simply by trying to be original. They need to build originality and uniqueness into their processes. It means reengineering product development processes. It means hiring different sorts of people who have been educated in different ways. It means somehow looking at the future with fresh eyes by going to different sources of inspiration and using different research techniques. But it also means daring to be different at the right time and having the chutzpah to reject ideas that are the same.

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