If brands had feelings, the unkindest epithet you could deploy about any one of them would be ‘me too’. That would hurt – like commenting on your fashion-conscious friend’s ‘sensible shoes’.

Brands, as any sentient member of the species would guardedly attest, are supposed to be differentiated, disruptive, revolutionary: always actively shaking things up. In that context the snippet ‘me-too brand’, heard from a member of the marketer or agency team, would come over less like a description than a diagnosis.

That’s not how it looks from the consumer’s point of view, though. The ‘levelling up’ of brands within a category is a sign of competition at work. If brand A makes a meaningful improvement, brands B and C have little option but to follow suit. With the three once more on a par, the only way for any one to steal the consumer’s affections is to innovate again – ensuring the continuous improvement that marketplace competition brings.

So brands B and C should not be dissed. They are performing a societal good, just in the uncelebrated process of edging to me-too status. If they declined, then brand A would run away with the market. The consumer would get what the consumer always gets in a monopoly: shafted.

Still, ‘How can we best play our role as a good-citizen me-too brand?’ will not set the pulse racing as the theme of that next innovation away-day. Not nearly exciting or challenging or disrupting enough. Or selfish enough, come to that: you’re looking for advantage here, not the crumbs of commercial catch-up.

Terms can be deceptive, though, and ‘me too’ is one of them. I promise you, there are exercises you can do at that workshop that will be revelatory, with those two little words at their core. Here are three to think about. In each case, the trick is to look at ‘me too’ through an unexpected lens.

The new rules of innovation

Me two

This isn’t about bringing any new features to the category. It’s about inventing a new combination. You start by itemising two important category virtues that are never seen within the same brand. Often, low price will be one of them – the trade-off that precludes some other quality that consumers would love but can’t afford.

The team then has to devise a way that its brand, uniquely, will offer both. What makes this task interesting is that it is basically impossible; if it weren’t, someone would have already worked out how to do it.

But ‘impossible’ turns out to be a relative term. With ingenuity and determination, the fusion can sometimes be achieved. The classic case is Accor Hotels, which looked at the ‘impossible’ combination that consumers craved at the budget end of the French hotel market: a good night’s sleep at a very low price.

At that time the choice was between cheap but noisy and uncomfortable – with thin walls and poor bedding part of the trade-off – or a better night for a higher price. With its Formule1 concept, Accor offered big, beautiful beds and proper soundproofing for the lowest-tier room rates.

How did it achieve it? By sacrificing things customers liked but valued less: reception staff, breakfast facilities, even cupboards – there was just a pole in the corner for hanging clothes.

Any team interested in ‘me-two’ innovation could do worse than look at the ‘value curve’ tool that is a key component of this case (see ‘Three ways to do me-too’ innovation’ below for more).

Me too, but moved

This starts by looking outside the sector – at business models, pricing structures, service approaches or technologies that are applied in other contexts, but not yours. The next step is to probe how it might feel if any one or more of them were transferred to your category and brand. The unlikelier the migration seems, the more interesting the possibilities get.

Those digitally native vertical brands (DNVBs) – also known as direct-to-consumer brands – that seem to be fizzing up everywhere are an example.

The hype makes them feel like a disruptive business breakthrough. The reality is that every one of them – from Harry’s to Glossier – is a replica of a business model that was around a century back: the lemonade stand.

Think about all the ones you’ve seen in cartoons – a couple of kids, a makeshift stand, a big jug, a heap of lemons and a hand-scrawled sign. The essential features of the model are single-product focus and indivisibility of production, retail and service elements.

DNVBs are basically lemonade stands shifted to the digital domain. Eve is just mattresses. Away is just luggage. Ohne is just tampons. Product offers don’t get much more focused than that. And the close integration of retail service, production and product offer is what Bonobos founder Andy Dunn, who coined the term DNVB, claims is the secret of the sector’s characteristic ‘consumer intimacy’.

Not that you have to reach up to the level of business model to pull off ‘me-too, but moved’ innovation: even something as routine as a delivery mechanism could unlock advantage. I am always struck by how Hexoral’s super-long spray nozzle – which would not look out of place in a garage but is novel in a healthcare pack – brings distinction and ‘smart-thinking’ credentials to this sore-throat brand.

Me too, but better

This is the approach championed by Professor Patrick Barwise and Sean Meehan in their book Simply Better. Differentiation, they argue, is overrated, compared with the discipline of raising standards across the accepted category dimensions.

So the team imagines that its brand will conform to the norms and must-haves of the sector, but, for each one, will determine a credible plan to outperform: faster, friendlier, more accurate, more responsive.

First Direct is an example. Since it pioneered non-branch banking in the 1990s, numerous competitors have joined the fray. The brand routinely sees them off by doing the same things better – with the highest NPS scores in the sector and more awards for service than any other bank.

It doesn’t sound as sexy, though, does it? And maybe that’s the problem with the racking up of the semantic register when our industry puts innovation on the agenda. If brands had feelings, you couldn’t blame some of them for feeling inadequate around all the ‘groundbreaking’, ‘audacious’ hype.

And that counts double at these innovation workshops. Have you ever attended one where the guru at the front didn’t bang on about ‘the next big thing’? Or where ‘breakthrough’ and ‘disruptive’ weren’t bandied about in a definition-free orgy of superlatives? Or where continuous, incremental improvement wasn’t seen as somehow meek and defeatist?

No, me neither.

Three ways to do ‘me-too’ innovation

1. Me two

Approach: Find a novel combination of two category benefits and focus your brand obsessively on them.

Example: The Nintendo Wii had no hard disk, no DVD player, poor connectivity and low processing speed, but it over-delivered on two features: its motion controller and surprisingly low price.

How to do it: Use the ‘value curve’, devised by Insead professors Renée Mauborgne and W Chan Kim: a simple tool for mapping out a brand and its competitors against the defining features of a category. Opportunities to raise certain features, and lower others, can then be identified.

2. Me too, but moved

Approach: Take a successful technique or feature from outside your category and bring it in.

Example: The Guardian recently returned to profitability after moving away from the category’s conventional paywall subscription model and instead asking people to make donations, in an approach borrowed from political groups and charities.

How to do it: Use a brainstorming exercise called ‘What would Elon Musk do?’. Identify a list of distinctive brands, figures or institutions — Elon Musk, Greenpeace, Dyson — and think through what techniques or features they might bring to the category.

3. Me too, but better

Approach: Follow the conventional category dimensions but raise the bar for them.

Example: JetBlue didn’t pioneer the low-cost airline model. But the latecomer managed to win significant market share by having friendlier staff, newer planes and a smoother booking process.

How to do it: Follow the six rules outlined by Professor Patrick Barwise and Sean Meehan in their book ‘Simply Better: Winning and Keeping Customers by Delivering What Matters Most.’





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