Think outside your vertical

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Intentionally borrowing and adapting elements from other industries can help you lead and transform your own, says Fine's managing partner.

Companies often find small ways to separate from competition—a price, a feature, an add-on service. But it’s rarer to see companies truly look, feel, and sound different from their industry peers—the kind of differentiation that can help a brand truly stand out, find substantive experience differences, and engender passionate customer loyalty.

So why don’t companies think differently? Either because they don’t have the time and tools to imagine alternatives or because it feels risky to implement when they do.

Most people at most companies spend most time looking inward, focused on their own internal organization or on immediate industry competitors. With this view, what guides decisions is what’s already worked in similar situations—the operative words being "already" and "similar." So industries gravitate toward sameness and incrementalism. It’s understandable, often even justifiable.

"No one ever got fired for hiring IBM." Which might be why there was a time when every computer company seemed to have a logo with big blue block letters. Then along came Apple, which thought outside its vertical and saw technology more like fashion and entertainment.

How important is vertical industry experience?
As a brand agency, it’s always surprising to get an RFP that suggests experience in a particular industry is a must-have. At the extreme of the "industry experience" expectation is the idea that it will inform, and limit, everything from brand strategy to industry-specific technology platforms that standardize online presence for everyone who uses it. It’s truly a paint-by-numbers approach.

That’s not to say industry knowledge is a negative. For some things (thought leadership, PR, operations), it’s especially important, and everything can be evaluated through the lens of what you know best. But just checking that box means little when the goal is to imagine new and deeper ways of differentiating from the competition. 

Every company needs to assess its risk tolerance. Yet what we see in almost every successful brand is a willingness to look outside their direct competitive set for inspiration, to look far (or at least a little further) afield to brands doing certain things well in markets that may at first glance seem to have little in common.

Why brands with big aspirations should think small
The key is to think small and to look at specific brand drivers that may find parallels from other industries to impact your own. Designers and other creatives do this habitually by rifling through books and imagining how an appealing visual style might apply to their project at hand, irrespective of industry. That kind of horizontal or parallel "design thinking" can go far beyond visual style to help inform all aspects of a brand. Here are a few examples:

If you work in wine and spirits, consider exploring place-based industries. Think hospitality tied to provenance, from a tour and tasting to the content of a travel brand.

Architecture and engineering doesn’t have to be super techy. Try framing it with the aspirational copy of a cause-based campaign or the "wow" factor of luxury real estate.

When dealing with consumer technology, why not aggregate tech features into people benefits? How can it feel fun and empowering, like video games or media? 

Tech brands have begun to surpass finance brands on trust, and VC brands all want to seem like the tech firms they court. It’s your job to add the allure of tech to old school financial services, venture capital, and private equity.

Hospitality brands can be as personal as a bespoke tailor, yet as heightened as entertainment. Conjure theatrical performance or improvisation.

If your forte is consumer packaged goods, pick an industry that wraps around the product, from health and wellness, to entertainment, to place-based story.

Fill in the vertical blanks
One way to escape the confines of your industry preconceptions is to complete a sentence—a sort of mad lib—that invites exploration outside your vertical. A simple "fill in the blanks" helps inspire a deeper process you can theoretically apply to almost any area of your business. It means filling in a sentence like this: "What would it look, feel, or sound like if your [Current Industry Vertical] brand adopted the [Specific Brand Touchpoint] of the best [Industry Outside Your Own] brands?"

The blanks come down to three columns: one is your current industry, another is a list of brand touchpoints (which may include everything from product design to imagery style to service standards to pricing model to copy voice and tone), and the third is a list of industries (whether ad hoc, from as obvious a source as Wikipedia, or just a list of 10–20 brands you personally admire). Put on some headphones, connect the columns, draw parallels, and use your imagination to see where your gut tells you new ideas may be worth further exploration.

Be different to be better
The goal is not to look at other industries solely as a way of being different—the goal is to find ways to be better. In the end, all brands that do things well are tapping into some basic human truths. To do a better job of giving customers a better experience means using your imagination to find specific areas where you can differentiate by somehow communicating or serving customers better, and not getting stuck in over-worn industry ruts.

It takes a conscious effort to think outside your vertical and then, after a few years where everyone copies you, to do it all over again.

Josh Kelly is Managing Partner and Strategist at FINE.