Best practice = brand parity

Columnist Will Novosedlik examines the dark side of award victories - when winning ideas become templates.

Any business student from the last 20 years will be familiar with Harvard business guru Michael Porter, whose two tomes – Competitive Strategy and Competitive Advantage, written in 1980 and 1985 respectively – constituted the business school bible throughout the ’90s.
In March of 2001, the Boston-based guru wrote a thorough and definitive analysis of the state of the digital nation. It was a devastating critique, one that sent shivers up and down the spines of every web shop in the world, because it pulled the rug out from under their key value proposition: that the cost savings created by e-commerce would provide clients with a key competitive advantage over those who still relied on bricks and mortar.
By the time Porter’s critique was published, we had lived through the embarrassment of Christmas 1999 when everyone ordered their gifts online and then didn’t get them by Dec. 25, because the dotcoms had forgotten to think about real-world logistics. We had also lived through the burst of the dotcom bubble three months later, and the economic slowdown that resulted. So Porter had a lot of evidence with which to analyze some of the digital industry’s more misguided claims.
Nine years on, most of the hard lessons learned from those days have resulted in both an easier purchase experience and a more integrated view of clicks and bricks. It has also forced us to hone the art of integrated communications. What it hasn’t resulted in is an understanding of the downside of so-called “best practices.”
In his article, Porter pointed out that once everyone has the same online capability, there is no longer any competitive advantage to be had. The early adopters – at least the ones who got it right – may have enjoyed a short window of competitive advantage, but once their competitors caught up, the window closed and everyone was on the same playing field.
This condition shone a bright light on one of Porter’s core concepts: the need for competitive differentiation. Though he wrote through an econometric lens, anyone in the marketing game instinctively understands the need for brands to be different from each other. It’s rule number one. Despite that, the reality in any category is that 95% of the brands are the same.
The online experience is no different. If you strip away the trade dress, most commercial websites are built exactly the same. This is the result of adhering to the “best practices” documented by all the user acceptance studies that have been done over the last decade. The only thing that’s different is the brand imagery. It’s like a walk down the detergent aisle. Same containers, same contents, different labels.
It seems like the internet, itself a disruptive technology, has now matured to the point where websites are afraid to innovate, lest they disrupt functionality. This is not a derogation of functionality; it’s a refutation of the overwhelming tendency of commerce to impoverish experience in the service of efficiency. But puritanical adherence to technical performance inevitably leads to banality and sameness.
In a 2007 blog post entitled “Why Traditional Strategic Planning Sucks and Best Practices are for Idiots,” Idris Mootee, founder of innovation consultancy Idea Couture, exhorts us to remember that “best practices are for those who don’t know what their customers’ needs are or have no idea where the future is going.” He talks about two different kinds of people: defenders, who see the future as more of the same but better, and attackers, who see the future as a new world.
Looking around the commercial internet, I’d say the defenders are calling the shots. Is this the fault of the brands or the folks who build websites for them? I’ve seen it come from both sides. It’s a basic human behaviour: the present sees the future as an extension of the past. As if it were that linear and incremental.
Come to think of it, defender behaviour is one of the key conundrums of the creative services industry. Most work that you see out there is informed by the same mindset that adheres to “best practices.” The work that wins awards and fills the glossy annuals becomes the benchmark for all those practitioners who didn’t win awards. Trouble is, they don’t see it as a benchmark to exceed so much as a source of ideas to copy. The result is that whatever category they’re serving becomes flooded with lookalikes. Last year’s awards become this year’s templates.
Best practices defend and extend the known; “next practices” attack the known by embracing the unknown. Consultants preach differentiation, but when the rubber meets the road, they themselves are no more capable of embracing it than the marketers who, in constant fear of their competitors or their bosses, just want
to fit in.

Will Novosedlik has worked on brands both as a consultant and as a client in Canada, the U.S. and Europe. These brands include Nestlé Canada, Corby Distilleries, Swiss Chalet, Harvey’s, RSA Security, Bata International, Deutsche Telecom, Butterfield and Robinson, Telus Business Solutions, The Reitman Group and, most recently, Wind Mobile. He can be reached at