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Blame Seth Godin and his darn Purple Cow.

If you really want to insult someone these days, call them ordinary.  Or, mother forgive me, average.

Clearly, the last thing on earth you want to be is … like everyone else.

So people struggle hard to differentiate themselves.  Mothers ache to give their kids a leg up in the world by gifting them with a unique baby name.

If you work in marketing or sales, you go to bed every night refining your unique selling proposition (USP).  The concept is vital if you want customers to pick your toothpaste over Colgate, or your yoga studio versus the one 30 minutes away that also offers Pilates.

But with the explosion of social media and personal branding, these ideas have spilled over into every kind of business, including your personal business. 

Want to convince the coach he should move you from the bench to the field?  Try a USP.  Interviewing for jobs?  You won’t get hired without a USP.  Worried about getting trapped in the elevator with the CEO for 60 seconds before he drafts the next round of layoffs?  Better have a USP in your back pocket.

Before you know it, women will demand their boyfriends produce a USP instead of ring prior to agreeing to marriage.

I like being creative, but this focus on being unique is getting out of hand.  Let’s stop the madness right now.

It turns out there’s a huge benefit to being similar.  Let me show you how to tap it.

Celebrate your sameness

One of the best ways to get your friend to actually read the book you’re loaning her is to say something like, “If you enjoy Malcolm Gladwell, you’re going to love this book!”

One of the worst things you can say is, “You’ve never read anything like this!”  Your friend will probably say “Huh,” raise her eyebrows, and then let the book sit on her coffee table for a few months until you ask for it back.

Twitter suggests users you might want to follow based on the people already in your stream.  Amazon and ebay both recommend great new products based on what’s already gone in your shopping cart.

Apparently, there’s a lot of money to be made from similarity.

It applies to job hires as well.  People put a ton of effort into differentiating themselves on their resume, but if you don’t have a referral from someone who works in the company, you’re already at a disadvantage.

Why?  Bosses are basically responding to the same pitch as the loaned book: Do you value Mary’s work?  Then you’re going to love her recommended new hire, Bob!

The trick is not to make yourself different from everyone else, but to make yourself similar to something really, really good.  Trust me, there’s room in the world for more of the good stuff.

The power of numbers

Remember the band Devo?  They were deliciously different and they still make for a good Halloween costume.

But they didn’t have the impact of someone like Kurt Cobain. I’ll argue the difference wasn’t talent, but the very idea they were uncopyable.

Imagine, for example, a man on a street corner with a megaphone.  He could have some really powerful things to say, but more than likely, he won’t have the same influence as a pack of protestors.  And while we tend to idolize the protest organizer (or leader) the point is that every one of those protestors plays a key role.

When one person walks away, the entire group loses power.

The “different” campaign led us to believe if we weren’t leading, we weren’t succeeding.  Instead of searching for the next great thing to unleash on the world (or your management), try lending your talents and voice to someone who’s already working on a good idea.  You’ll generate a lot of goodwill in addition to upping your chances of making a real impact.

Sometimes what we need to give is bigger than ourself.

The more we like something, the more we want

I used to live in Dayton, Ohio.  It’s your typical midwestern town in the U.S., where you’d expect the populace to be conservative, meat-and-potatoes kind of people.  No purple cows here!

Then I noticed something funny.  In addition to your regular staple of burger joints like McDonald’s, Burger King, and Wendy’s, a whole new crop was popping up.  First it was Five Guys, then Smashburger, and then E/O Burger (short for Extraordinary Burger).

Not only was this an atypical market for “gourmet” burgers, but the places were thriving.  It wasn’t unusual to go to one and find a line out the door … for a burger!

And I had to admit, every time I went to one of the new burger joints, I was more inclined to try out the others.  Apparently I wasn’t alone.  Competition wasn’t driving down business, it was enhancing it.

Someone told me once you never want to open a pizza joint in a town that doesn’t already have one.  That’s not just a lesson for entrepreneurs.

Find what people love (whether it’s your boss or your grandmother) and give them more of the same.  They’ll eat it up.  Literally.

It’s all been done before anyway

We love to celebrate trend-setters: Apple, Amazon, The Beatles, Richard Branson, Madonna.  We love their foresight, their courage, and most of all, their ability to shape the world they entered.

Did you catch that?  The world they entered.  Very few, if any of them, had a truly novel idea.

People took Godin’s Purple Cow at face value. They thought purple was the important part.

Godin urges us to be remarkable, not necessarily different.  If you can take the same old thing, polish it up, and make it shine, do that.

End the angst over being different.  Stop shucking the oysters of your talent in search of the elusive black pearl.

What your mother told you on the day you were born is still true: you’re already as unique as you need to be.

Now go do something about it.

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56 Responses to Dare To Be Similar

    • On
    • February 1, 2011 at 10:18 am
    • Brianne
    • Said...

    I really like this post. I’ve always thought of myself as a “secondary leader” lending my particular talents and time and energy to other peoples’ causes and good work.

    The world doesn’t usually need another new organization when there are so many out there doing great work who just need another set of hands to help get the job done.

    I don’t know what our obsession is with fame, notoriety and the legacy that so many websites talk about leaving behind. Often times, the quest for this legacy takes up so much time and energy that the people around you, the ones who support and love you, often get less of your time and attention. If you want to leave a real legacy, shouldn’t you start with those closest to you who are your support system?

    Tangent. Sorry.

    Anyway! Bringing your personality and a good work ethic into an otherwise bland corporate environment is often enough to get noticed. I’m the one who smiles and laughs and jokes even in the hardest times and I’m known as the person to come to when times are rough and you need a pick-me-up. And I LOVE that feeling I get when I can make someone laugh who otherwise might be crying because that’s what I do. I’m an enlightener and a passionate laugher and a good listener. I may not be a stand-up comic that everyone knows, but amongst my friends and social circle, I am the one they feel the need to be around periodically because I lift them up and I’m lifted because of it.

    That’s really the key, isn’t it? Doing work that helps others which in turn helps you get through the craziness that life sometimes (always?) is. We ARE all unique. That’s born in us. I think somehow we forget that along the way.

      • On
      • February 1, 2011 at 12:45 pm
      • Hélène
      • Said...

      OOPS ! My reply was to Brianne’s comment…

      I completely agree with you ! I often think the same when I see some (a celebrity or anyone) starting a new charity, instead of helping one of the very good that already exist, just so they can say they were the founder, that “it’s their legacy”… I think I have the same relationship as you with people at work, and I think I can have an impact on other people’s lives just by talking, listening, smiling…

        • On
        • February 2, 2011 at 10:35 am
        • Brianne
        • Said...

        Hey Helene! You can have a HUGE impact on other peoples’ lives just by being exactly who you are. My best friend goes through withdrawal if she doesn’t see me at least once a week because I offer her that respite from her everyday stress of being a stay-at-home-mom with 2 yr-old twins.

        I give her an outlet to vent and be a human without judging her for needing a break. And she gives me that sense of family that I crave.

        It’s all give and take, I think. We more often need to learn how to navigate and live in the world that already surrounds us instead of trying to bend it to our will all the time.

        Thanks for responding, Helene!

    • I love that term, “secondary leader.” It’s a good place to be and I enjoy it as well.

      Completely agree–brightening the work place is very worthy of a legacy. It’s no less important than teaching or serving with the police. I wish more people stepped up to the calling. Work would be a lot more fun!

      And yes, you got it. ;)

        • On
        • February 2, 2011 at 10:50 am
        • Brianne
        • Said...

        Oh I agree! Making our work-life fun is sometimes the only thing that gets us through the day. I look at that as one of my greatest assets in a corporate world that I don’t really love being a part of (but need to be a part of until I find something in another sector.)

        Thanks for replying, Jen!

  1. So true! I remember someone in commercial property management once telling me that two Starbuck’s stores close together were busier than if there were only one.

    I love this: “Godin urges us to be remarkable, not necessarily different. If you can take the same old thing, polish it up, and make it shine, do that.”

    If I have a client who’s really struggling with something (like confidence or saying “No”) I’ll tell them to think of someone they know who is good at whatever it is and act like them. I’ll have them keep trying out the way other people do something until they find their unique blend…

    • Role models are wonderful! In fact, role play can do wonders too. My daughter, who is currently 3, loves to play Mommy or Teacher, and I indulge her often. Not only does she benefit from seeing the other perspective, but I do too. And I think our relationship is stronger for it.

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    • On
    • February 1, 2011 at 12:26 pm
    • Pace Smith
    • Said...

    It’s the “cow” half of “purple cow”.

    If you have a purple greshcanrou and you want everyone to check it out, your most likely response will be “WTF is a greshcanrou?”

    The cow gives it familiarity. The purple gives it remarkableness. I think both are important. (:

    • Ah, you have given me the perfect opportunity to quote the poet Billy Collins, from his poem “Afternoon with Irish Cows”

      [...]
      Then later, I would open the blue front door,
      and again the field would be full of their munching
      or they would be lying down
      on the black-and-white maps of their sides,
      facing in all directions, waiting for rain.
      How mysterious, how patient and dumbfounded
      they appear in the long quiet of the afternoon.

      But every once in a while, one of them
      would let out a sound so phenomenal
      that I would put down the paper
      or the knife I was cutting an apple with
      and walk across the road to the stone wall
      to see which one of them was being torched
      or pierced through the side with a long spear.

      Yes, it sounded like pain until I could see
      the noisy one, anchored there on all fours,
      her neck outstretched, her bellowing head
      laboring upward as she gave voice
      to the rising, full-bodied cry
      that began in the darkness of her belly
      and echoed up through her bowed ribs into her gaping mouth.

      Then I knew that she was only announcing
      the large, unadulterated cowness of herself,
      pouring out the ancient apologia of her kind
      to all the green fields and the gray clouds,
      to the limestone hills and the inlet of the blue bay,
      while she regarded my head and shoulders
      above the wall with one wild, shocking eye.

    • On
    • February 1, 2011 at 12:32 pm
    • susan shannon
    • Said...

    Sorry. Not buying it. I’m an identical twin and spent the early part of my life being similar to someone else. So I moved 3,000 miles from home away from my twin to find the unique/different/remarkable self that I knew I was meant to be; not the other half of a whole that I was constantly compared to. You know what? I flourished; I bloomed; it’s GOOD to be different!

    • Susan,

      Now there’s a perspective I hadn’t considered! I think the distinction lies in “similar” and “same.” No one wants to be completely identical, though clearly some twins enjoy the similarity more than others. But even twins bring their own uniqueness. You’re still as unique as you were the day you were born. You just needed the space to express it. I’m glad you did.

      Thanks!

    • On
    • February 1, 2011 at 12:39 pm
    • Hélène
    • Said...

    Wow ! that post really resonated with me ! I often find myself wondering what differentiates me from my colleagues, apart from the fact that I’m the only woman in the group (there’s not that many female telecom engineers): one guy has an MBA, the other has a master in Finance, the other is a Major in the Army reserve, and so on… I’m just the single-mon in her thirties who doesn’t have time to start new studies or have a second job outside… But I’m really good at what I do ! I make other people at ease because I’m not always bragging about something, I work hard and help people a lot. I just realized with your post that there is value in being one of the good people, not really different, but really good ! Thanks !

    • You bet, Helene. You bring a valuable perspective and energy to the table. Don’t ever forget it! I certainly appreciate you working to enhance the community here. See, there you go again! LOL

  3. Jennifer,
    This post had deep resonance with me. I think the push to be different is seeing a backlash, and your post illuminates several reasons why.

    When we all try to be different, we isolate ourselves from one another – the very people we need to grow and be successful!

    Your words do not conflict with Godin, in fact, they provide it with the context one needs to see “Purple Cow” in. Thank you for this much-needed perspective. You’ve given me much to think about :)

    • Brett,

      Interesting that you think it’s experiencing a backlash. I haven’t seen it yet, but I’m pleased to hear it. I think it’s important to acknowledge there are situations that call for being different, but no nearly as many as we’re led to believe. Anything I can do to help take the pressure off is a good thing.

      And yes, I agree. I think Godin and I see things very similarly. I hope that came through at the end of the post. The problem was the interpretation of Godin’s message, not the message itself.

      Thanks for your perspective too!

    • On
    • February 1, 2011 at 12:52 pm
    • LeAnne
    • Said...

    That’s why I have fallen in love with my Pandora. I love having music that is like the music I already love brought to my attention. I’ve learned about many new artists that way, and even though they are similar they are also different enough from one another to add a little life and freshness to my listening ears. I believe there will be some signifant shifts in marketing approaches as consumers are given easier ways to find what they like rather than have an artificial desire created because of slick marketing designed to manipulate our tastes.

    • Good point on Pandora. I love it for the same reason.

  4. While in some areas of business it might to be innovative and the leader in the industry, for most of us, we want to know there are others like us, that think along the same lines, that feel the same. We want to feel we belong. That is why I write about kinda a touchy subject on my blog. I write about anxiety and depression and overload and burnout. Because I’ve been there and others are there now as well. And others are also on that path, and if I can say something to help them to step off that path into safety and healing, then I am going to do so. So even though I am similar in that I write about my feelings and my life, I tend to be a little more open than what I had for lunch that day!
    Great words!
    Bernice
    Be authentic, be engaging, and be ready for change

    • I think the point is: it’s okay to be different, it’s okay to be similar. Just be you, and do good things. Really good things if you can muster it. Shine on, Bernice!

  5. Jen,
    Excellent post with important points. I read a post by Chris Guillue (now I can’t spell his name), THe Art of Non-conformity, where he wrote a list of what, in his mind, constituted “unremarkably average”. Although a good post and interesting list, I saw commenters feeling bad because they weren’t living Chris’s unique life. That’s sad. If everyone led Chris’s life it would no longer be non-conforming. I’m impressed with him but would not want his life. It’s unfortunate that the words average, similar have taken on a negative connotation. As human beings we connect, in large measure, because of our similarities. And yes the dissimilar is also interesting.

    • Cherry,
      I’m a big fan of Chris Guillebeau and have read his book, which I recommend. While I can’t speak for him, I would paraphrase his message as more “do what works for you, not necessarily what society tells you to.” I believe he’s recommending a non-conformist approach to life’s questions, not that you have to live his life to be a nonconformist.

      I’m very fascinated by how both similiarities and differences can bind us together. This likely won’t be my last words on the subject. :)

      Thanks!

  6. Interesting isn’t it that being different isn’t the same a differentiating ourselves? The former to me means new; the latter variation. I really like your point: “The trick is not to make yourself different from everyone else, but to make yourself similar to something really, really good.” When we make ourselves “really really good,” we’ve differentiated ourselves from something less than that. Lots of people are grateful, but we may show our gratitude in a way that’s uniquely us, something that makes us memorable to the people we touch. Thanks for a very interesting and through-provoking post, that also gives comfort to many. ~Dawn

    • “Interesting isn’t it that being different isn’t the same a differentiating ourselves?” You always have such amazing clarity, Dawn. Yes, I completely agree.

  7. My mind opened up when reading the part on (USP)unique selling point as I’m now working on a project on standing out in conversaions.
    I can see the benefit in business of being unique from the competiton and your article demonstrated the point very well. I wouldn’t want to own one of the similar businesses.
    Being similar is a great place to be for those who don’t want to be recognized. I think that this description fits a minority as the majority want to stand out but many people lack the ability to do so in a positive manner. Movie and TV stars are the most glaring example of striving to be different but often fail to do it in a positive manner, so they become similar.
    Great blog. Lee

    • I don’t think being similar necessarily means you won’t be recognized. I mean, Oprah didn’t invent the talk show format, but she made it her own and certainly was recognized for it.

  8. This is great! I really never thought about this, but when I read it, it made perfect sense.

    For example, my department is already interviewing people to replace me when I retire in May. Apart from excellent credentials, we are looking for someone who will “fit in.” That doesn’ mean the person has to be like me, or that I am like everyone else in the department. We are diverse by race, age, and gender, but we do all share certain vaules and we get along so well. There is a comraderie in our department and a deep friendship among us that is not shared throughout the rest of the faculty. So in that sense, similarity will be a real selling point for any applicant.

    I’m going to think about how this plays out in other parts of my life. Great post!

    • A lot of people underestimate how important it is to fit in. An organization of prima donnas aren’t nearly as effective as a cohesive team. Those of us who have managed both sets know better!

  9. Jen, you make a valid point. Sometimes people get lost in the process as they are too busy looking to be unique. I always laugh at the phrase, “you are unique, just like everybody else”. To me it is not about trying to be unique.It is a lot more about being yourself and associating with folks that get you. Being the trailblazer or antagonizing people in a rhythm that works does not serve anyone. Funnily enough, my post this week led me to read Tribes (I had not yet read any of Seth’s books although I follow his Blog). My wife and editor on reading my post thought I would enjoy Seth’s book, and I am enjoying the read indeed. Brett’s comment above is correct, as even reading Tribes, I do not think your points of view are in disagreement, just merely focused on different parts of the whole. My post that I am referring to is http://fit4thabo.blogspot.com/2011/01/are-you-selling-to-your-people.html

    • Big thumbs up here: It is a lot more about being yourself and associating with folks that get you.

      Couldn’t agree more! Look forward to checking out your own post.

    • On
    • February 1, 2011 at 5:54 pm
    • sally
    • Said...

    I learned many years age, it’s true if you want to open a new business open one in a neighborhood that was two or three of the same businesses. Because people like chooses.

  10. Jen,
    First timer here. :) Just clicked over from Jon Morrow’s “Why Nice People Make Lousy Bloggers” email, and I’m glad I did.

    I am a “nice” person working on projects in two very crowded spaces: I am a marketer/writer and an aspiring novelist in the young adult fantasy genre. Although I am mostly upbeat, confident, and enthusiastic about my work, I do sometimes find myself battling a defeatist sense of “why bother?” When I look at the competition I am overwhelmed with the reality of just how much has already been done, is being done, and being done damn well. I start to wonder just what I can bring to the table, who will care, and if maybe I should just call the whole thing off and sell life insurance instead.

    Thank you for reminding me that my “edge” in the market doesn’t have to be a never-before-heard USP; it can just be ME. Each of us has a unique way of seeing and interpreting the world. Maybe we need to learn to trust that our interpretive skills have intrinsic value, that there are people out there who will fall in love with our vision and our way of explaining things. Maybe it’s less about contorting ourselves so we can fit neatly into a manufactured “personal brand” and more about getting up the courage to put our Real Selves out there where they can attract the people who already “get” us.

    It’s a little scary either way, but I think I’d rather bet on finding someone who likes me for me than risk having to be someone else to make a living.

    Thanks for inspiring a moment of reflection in my day.

    • The good news is that there’s hardly an industry better suited to rewarding similarity. I mean, I read a lot of YA fantasy growing up, and it was pretty much the same plot over and over with different elves and dragons. But I couldn’t get enough of it! So keep pursuing your dream. Writing is definitely an endurance sport.

      As for this: “It’s a little scary either way, but I think I’d rather bet on finding someone who likes me for me than risk having to be someone else to make a living.”

      I couldn’t have said it better. And of course it means that most job interviews totally set up everyone for failure. But it is, in my opinion, a much better way to live.

      Shine on!!

  11. Your post reminded me of this TED talk:
    http://www.ted.com/talks/derek_sivers_how_to_start_a_movement.html

    It points out the obvious but overlooked point that a movement is not a movement until the second person joins. The first follower who smartly recognizes something worth supporting is just as important as the leader.

    I agree that a lot of the terminology you point out is often misconstrued. A purple cow may be remarkable but its just a novelty if it remains the only one, either because it can’t be reproduced or isn’t worth reproducing. Likewise, a unique selling proposition doesn’t necessarily require that you be unique; your USP could be that you are more connected to your customers than the other guy. You are unique amongst your competitors but similar to your customers.

    • Ahaha! That’s great. I love this line: “The first follower is what transforms a lone nut into a leader.”

      Thanks for sharing that. :)

    • On
    • February 2, 2011 at 2:56 am
    • Erika
    • Said...

    This is so true! And desperately needed right now! I’ve talked with so many people who are finding themselves unable to move because they feel they don’t have an “original” idea. It paralyzes them. It paralyzed me for a long time.
    Once I realized the power of community, and the fact that there’s strength in numbers, I decided that what I had to contribute was valuable. Valuable because I was lending one more voice. And maybe MY voice will be the catalyst to spark a change in someone else. After all, it really took a chorus of voices to inspire my own personal change.

    • Great insight, Erika. And it’s such a relief, isn’t it? Definitely watch the video link Gregory posted. You’ll love it!

  12. It’s like we crave the ability to relate to something because it’s similar to what we already know and like, AND we want some surprise and uniqueness thrown in. Striving for the appropriate ratio of the two for the buyers of you or your idea is extremely important.

    • Great point! As a sincere lover of all things quirky, I know just what you mean.

  13. Interesting point, although everyone’s still doing the same.

    I think people should stop looking at others. Period. Be who you are. Do what you feel like doing. Be happy to find similarities in other people and be interested of people that are different.

    • I think in an ideal world we’d stop looking at others, but for those of us with Type A personalities (ahem, whoever they may be), it’s not realistic. I’m competitive by nature and it’s really hard to change nature. So if I can’t change my tendency to compare, the best I can do is be at peace with whatever I may find. That’s where I’ve put my energy.

  14. A voice of sanity in a cacophony of madness. Thank you.

    • Happy to deliver some sanity. :)

      Thanks, Ted!

  15. Hi Jen,
    If it comes to business it seems like “remarkable” sells and “similar” sells as well. So maybe there is something else about successful business that nobody talks about. Maybe it’s just being “consistently reliable” rather than “similar” or “remarkable”.
    We know the statistics. Most small businesses fail in first year, the rest in 5 years. I think not many of us have figured it all out. But VERY FEW did. Let’s find them and ask them:)

    • On
    • February 4, 2011 at 9:06 am
    • Lach
    • Said...

    Interesting thoughts Jen, but aren’t you being a little bit sneaky in blurring the lines between “similar” and “average”. Sure you’re going to be drawn towards things which posses the qualities you already know that you like. That just means “know your market”. But if you show up to the market and you’re mediocre—what’s the point? Isn’t this like arguing that Elvis impersonators are an acceptable substitute for Elvis?

  16. Great point, Derek. I think you’re right, in business, we have to find the bright spots and ask them. But in your personal affairs, I think it’s helpful to take the pressure off being so darn unique. You don’t have to be Lady Gaga to be valuable. :)

  17. You know, I was wondering if someone would call me out on that. Good catch! Yes, there is a difference between similar and average, and the former is certainly preferable to the latter.

    But I do worry we’ve taken the Lake Wobegone effect to heart. We can’t all be above average, and those who ARE average are every bit as valuable as those who are, by some person’s measure, extraordinary. Honestly, I get a bit tired of the hyperbole.

    And I’ll have you know that Elvis impersonators are a high demand item in their niche. Elvis is dead. An impersonator keeps him alive. What’s wrong with that?

  18. Jen,

    I love this post. You make some wonderful points. Speaking of hiring, it’s very true that employers want to hire those who are like their best employees–those are the ones who pose less of a risk, which of course is what hiring tends to be all about.

    I always say to clients, “What do you do better than anyone else you know? What is your secret sauce”. This helps them think about what makes them better at what everyone else does too, which isn’t so much about creating a niche, it’s more about just being better.

    • Okay, anyone who uses the term “secret sauce” is someone I’m gonna like. But I digress…

      Totally agree with you. There’s such a market for talent. People are afraid to step out and really shine, but it’s the only real source of security there is.

    • On
    • February 7, 2011 at 5:10 pm
    • Clara
    • Said...

    Hi Jennifer,

    So glad I read this post as I’ve always felt good about not following in someone else footsteps! Now, I’m leaning toward connecting with folks with similarities that equal or surpass my own interests…

    Best,
    Clara

    • Yep, that’s it. You’ll learn more from people like you too. It just makes everything look easy. Glad you liked the post!

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    • On
    • February 12, 2011 at 10:12 am
    • Mark W.
    • Said...

    Jennifer, thanks for this post.
    Very enjoyable to read and also insightful.
    I really liked the reference to pizza as the city I live in has many places available. In fact, it’s an overabundance and I often wonder why another pizza joint. I see so many open and close. It’s a tough and discerning market here. So like the burger joints you describe, we have to try the new pizza place that just opened. If something is similar, then it’s much easier to make comparisons.

    • Yeah, I still get cravings for those burger joints. They’ve ruined me for all other cities. LOL

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