Chuck Ross

Escaping the Competitive Herd: Why the CTAM Summit is the Best Conference in the TV Industry

Oct 20, 2010

The annual summit put on by Char Beales and her team at CTAM, the Cable & Telecommunications Association for Marketing, is, year-in and year-out, the smartest event we attend.

As regular readers of this blog know, I’m a big believer in the dictum of Ray Kroc, the late genius behind McDonald’s: Keep It Simple, Stupid.

Here’s CTAM’s mission statement: "Optimize cable marketing impact." That’s simple and clear.

And each year CTAM gets down to the nitty gritty with a useful, no-nonsense program of sessions at its summit that speak directly to its mission statement.

This year’s summit, which concludes today, Oct. 20, 2010, in New Orleans, is a good example. The theme, or tagline, if you will, of the summit is “Connect. Innovate. Succeed,” which plays perfectly off CTAM’s mission statement.

And with CTAM, its mission statement and theme of its summits isn’t PR BS. It’s real and it’s smart.

Take Tuesday morning’s general session. It featured a popular Harvard Business School professor, Youngme Moon, who gave one of the most engaging presentations I’ve ever seen, based on a book she’s recently published called “Different,” with the subtitle “Escaping the competitive herd.”

Here’s the question she asked: How different are you really from your competitors, in a meaningful way? Are your customers passionate about your brand, or do they just shrug?

In a world where there are 50 brands of bottled water or 24 kinds of toothpaste in your local supermarket, as Moon noted, these are relevant questions.

When there were only two brands of bottled water, let’s say Perrier and Evian, it wasn’t that hard to differentiate between the two. But, for most of us, differentiation is far more difficult when there are 50 choices of bottled water.

True differentiation is actually rare, Moon posited.

Then she gave an anti-intuitive spin on some generally accepted notions of how to run a good business.

Many good businesses are obsessed with differentiation, Moon explained. But some of the accepted best practices surrounding this obsession backfire. For example, in companies’ efforts to be competitively vigilant, they will match competitive offers.

Furthermore, another accepted best practice is to always listen to your customer.

But, ultimately, both of these notions usually lead to herd behavior and discourage companies from really becoming different than their competitors in a meaningful way, Moon said.

Take listening to your customers. They will always tell you how to improve, Moon explained, but will never to able to tell you how to be different. And usually what they will tell you about how to improve will be in ways your competitors behave that your customers claim they like.

But what you really need to do to stand out from the crowd—as anti-intuitive as it sounds—is don’t give your customers exactly what they say they want.

More generally, Moon said, in most companies’ attempts to focus on excellence, they are afraid NOT to be excellent in some aspects of their business. But, in fact, to stand out from the crowd, it’s actually preferable to double down on your strengths and not try and be excellent in all areas of your business.

Then Moon gave a specific example: Ikea.

Moon ran off a list of how most furniture stores operate—how they try and eliminate all the negatives we have about furniture shopping. They give us lots of choices and furniture that will last a lifetime and free delivery and assembled furniture, etc. etc.

Ikea, of course, spits in the eye of most of that. And it’s the only furniture store that is truly differentiated in the marketplace, Moon said. And Ikea is rewarded for its true differentiation by incredibly loyal customers who repeatedly shop there.

Another example Moon gave was the U.S. introduction of the Mini Cooper car, with a campaign that flew in the face of what American habits were at the time, which was for bigger and bigger cars.

Lessons learned from the truly differentiated brands is that they often embrace their negatives. Thus, if you want to be different, Moon says, you often have to ignore your critics as well as some of the critical things your customers say.

Another successful company along these lines, she noted, is Apple. Has there ever been a company accused of being more arrogant? Has there ever been a company more successful in being differentiated?

Moon ended her presentation with one of her most provocative ideas: that if you want to be different you need an idea to be different. OK, that’s a no brainer. But, she added, ideas that lead to differentiation are hard to distinguish from ideas that might seem crazy or stupid or both.

Wow. What a rub. She didn’t say what happens then, or how to figure out which is which. All I could think about is if you guess wrong you get New Coke, and risk killing the company.

But what a challenging and stimulating way to kick-off yesterday’s CTAM summit, and how clearly it fit with CTAM’s idea for the conference, that you must innovate to really connect with your customers in order to succeed.#


  1. In TV there’s at least one element she didn’t mention – it’s not enough to have a seemingly good difference, it also must be communicated to the masses in an appealing and differentiated way, and perhaps most importantly, it must be given a slot on TV in which it stands a chance to be seen, be appreciated, and grow an audience. I think back just a few weeks to the unfortunate failing of “Lone Star”.

  2. “Unless you’re willing to have a go, fail miserably, and have another go, success won’t happen.” Phillip Adams

  3. Today someone asked how I tease my hair so I told him, he replied with so that’s how those fluffy bastards do it

  4. Dawn just got asked if she wanted to pee on a stick- why do I never get asked that

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