Summary of Different by Youngme Moon

  • Post category:Summaries
  • Post last modified:September 18, 2023

Summary: 14 min

Book reading time: 4h46

Score: 10/10

Book published in: 2011

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  • Competition leads companies to copy each other. As a result, all products within a category eventually become identical and the category dies (no more choice for consumers).
  • A challenger can revive a category (and own it) by doing something different than all of the competitors are doing.
  • The three strategies to do something different are: being the complete opposite of competitors, breaking the codes of the category, or becoming a hostile brand.

Table of Contents

What Different Talks About

Different was written by Harvard marketing professor Younge Moon. It explains that competition encourages companies to watch and copy each other. As soon as one differentiates and does something better or different, the others copy it. This breeds sameness and uniformizes a category of products over time.

What a great book!

True to itself, Different isn’t like other books.

It lacks academic references, it’s not organized, and it’s more of a discussion between the author and the reader than an actual manuscript.

Youngme Moon’s observations are on point though. The road she offers out of competition is smart and original.

This book was a real “aha” moment for me. It completely changed the way I looked at brands and business in general.

I recommend reading the book.

It’s short and it will teach you a great deal.


Buy the book here.

Summary of Different written by Youngme Moon

While marketing is supposed to bridge people to businesses, it is too “business-like” and not human enough.

This book aims at making marketing more “organic.”


As a product category ages, the alternatives within that category broaden.

Eg: smartphones. Each brand used to make 2 or 3 models per year at most in the beginning.

Today, they renew their own categories and sub-categories every six months. This is because competition increases as time goes by, and pressures brands in an increasing fashion.

The only way companies fight competition is by making more and better products.

While wider categories give consumers more choices, it also complicates their decision and the category itself.

This causes no problems to experts since they know the differences between the products, but it confuses novices that only see similarities.

Eg: To my grandma, all phones look the same. To a passionate, they’re all different.

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Businesses are so used to competing today that they have forgotten why they compete in the first place. Competition has become a reflex, and it has become robotic.

As soon as one company adds a new feature (Eg: several cameras on the phone), the competition copies.

Instead of generating differences, competition generates more of the same.

Competition has become the norm.

And no one stands out anymore.

Part 1: The Competitive Herd

Chapter 1: The Herd Instinct

Ever heard of the observer effect? It says that the mere act of observing a phenomenon impacts the phenomenon.

The opposite effect happens for brands.

As they are developing their products, they grow increasingly focused on their competition which impacts their own product development.

As soon as the competition does something different to increase sales, they copy right away for fear to be left behind.

This leads companies in the same market to make similar products over time.

This is the first consequence of differentiation. It breeds sameness.

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The second consequence is caused by metrics.

Businesses use metrics to measure what they do well and not well.

Once they know where their strengths and weaknesses lie, they only focus on reinforcing their weaknesses. No company desires to be weak in one part of their business.

This leads to two consequences.

  1. When you focus on weaknesses, you do so at the expense of your strength.
  2. As a result, instead of dominating in one area with one specialty, you become average at everything and best at nothing -> so does your competitor -> you and your competitor who were once different, have become similar.
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As you focus on your weaknesses while copying your competitor not to lose the advantage in the market, differences with your competition decrease.

Eg: Company A’s strength is low prices. Company B’s strength is customer service.

Customers from company A complain of bad customer service -> Company A increases prices to improve customer service.

Customers from company B complain of high prices -> Company B slashes customer service to lower prices.

Company A and B, which were different, are now the same.

By competing, companies A and B became more alike.

Both used to be special in something, but have now regressed towards the mean.

They have become average, blindly copying each other -> the market has become a herd.

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In animal behavior, a herd is defined by the absence of conspiracy (of an arrangement between individuals to behave in the same way).

Herds are self-sustaining and self-organized (without centralization). The coordination of each independent member in the herd is based on two principles.

  1. Awareness of one’s position relative to the position of those nearby
  2. Willingness to adjust when nearby individuals shift direction (following and copying your neighbor)

These rules, which are reactive in nature, maintain the herd in place. As long as everyone is following everyone, everyone stays together.

Businesses that operate within a market follow herd principles.

All companies

  • put the client first
  • listen to customer feedback
  • serve consumers

They all do the same. They watch each other and copy whichever method creates the best results.

As a result, they all end up creating the same company and the same product.

The author goes on to tell the story that when she gives no guidelines, no metrics, no box to her students for an assignment, the students are confused at the beginning.

But in the end, 2 or 3 students give back an assignment that would never have been that good had she given them a structure to canvas it into.

The more entrenched a system of measurement, the more it is difficult for an outlier to emerge.

Chapter 2: The Paradox of Progress

Do we perceive progress as positive, or negative? It depends.

We’re always happy to have better, more powerful phones. Or more comfortable, cheaper cars. When we buy a house, we look forward to designing it exactly how we want it.

So in a way, we could say people like progress.

But when we compare our childhood to the ones of our children, or when we see what they watch on television, or the toys they play with, it’s hard to fight the “it was better before” feeling that invades us.

So, do we like progress, or not?

The truth is that we have a definite image of the future (pro-progress), and if reality doesn’t exactly fit it, we’re disappointed (anti-progress).

This is where product marketers differ from consumers.

Consumers are inconsistent towards progress -> marketers are consistent.

Consumers are ambivalent in regard to change -> marketers are unambivalent

Consumers are fickle towards product evolution -> marketers are predictable.

Most business professionals want to make their products better.

They do so in two ways.

  1. They add/reinforce stuff – features, warranties, etc
  2. They add variations – eg: diet coke, coke zero, coke cherry, etc

Marketers always try to improve their products because they think that consumers expect a better future.

Does adding features really make products better? No.

We know that more doesn’t make us happier in the long term.

When companies strive to improve their products, they not only miss making a difference in the lives of their customers, but since all of their competitors will copy, they only level the playing field for everyone.

Eg: Marriott introduced better beds -> Radisson, Hilton, Hyatt introduced better beds -> everyone is back to square one and everything is more expensive.

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Competition levels the playing field over time as companies copy each other.

Making your product better only leads to commoditization.

Creating different categories of the same product multiplies customers’ options for nothing since the differences are irrelevant most of the time.

This reduces “doing business” to the artful packaging of meaningless distinctions as true differentiation.

Categories that are victims of an over-abundance of choices become what the author calls hyper-mature.

It’s when adding more characteristics to a product does not add value – just confusion.

Chapter 3: The Category Blur

Social media transformed the way we consume. In the past, people were able to buy stuff without wondering what their friends would say.

Not anymore.

Social media has introduced a constant eye we need to take into account when buying stuff.

As a result, brands play an increasing part in our identity and how we represent ourselves.

In the past, brands used actors to show people how cool the brand was. Today, people use brands to show other people how cool they are.

While people seem particularly picky about the brands they buy for certain categories of products (clothes), the author argues they’re not as loyal to brands as they used to be.

Brand loyalty increased for a few products but decreased for the rest of them.

In any way, there have always been two types of categories free from any brand loyalty.

  1. Categories in which there is no obvious brand variety, like sugar, or gas stations.
  2. Categories in which there is almost an infinite variety, like restaurants, or wine.

Two things tend to happen when a category or a market reaches hyper-maturity.

  1. The consumer is confused by the hyper-activity -> the whole category/market becomes a blur. Brands and products have become a herd.
  2. The consumer begins a relationship with the category itself, not with the brand.

People don’t fight for Coke VS Pepsi anymore. They fight for soda VS orange juice.

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As products in the category multiply, they become increasingly similar, until the whole category blurs into “one same product”.

So, why does this happen? Why don’t marketers realize this?

Because businesses are focused on their brands. They fail to notice that their customers can’t see any differences.

As we said, the expert sees differences where novices see commonalities.

In the late 1950s, the theory known as the Diffusion of Innovations was introduced.

It breaks consumers into five different groups.

  1. Innovators
  2. Early adopters
  3. Early majority
  4. Late majority
  5. Laggards

A similar law can be applied to people dealing with hyper-mature categories.

  1. Connoisseurs: they select what is best for them, and are not focused on the brand.
  2. Savvy opportunists: they are like connoisseurs, minus the fun of choosing. They often want to save money.
  3. Pragmatics: they grew tired of the hyper-maturity of the category and make their choice based on habit, routine, price, and convenience.
  4. Reluctants: they hate buying from the category and do so only when they have to.
  5. The brand loyalists: whatever happens, they always buy the same product.

Category hyper-matures -> people become more and more reluctant -> the category eventually dies off.

Chapter 4: Escaping the Herd

Let’s summarize.

Each product has a cycle.

First, they’re born, then improved, then over-improved because businesses all copy each other and use the same metrics to measure their products.

This leads to hyper-maturity within the category, which then slowly dies.

It’s only when a category contains products so similar to each other that we can’t differentiate them, that the field is ready for a challenger to stand out.

The category is reborn when someone does something truly different – not by differentiating, but by escaping competition altogether.

Challengers shake up categories in three different ways: reversal, breakaway, and hostility.

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Part 2: No Contest

Chapter 5: Reversal

At the dawn of the Internet, all the search engines (Yahoo, AOL, etc) had a homepage stacked with content and information.

The more time passed, the more content they added.

Then came Google, whose homepage was slick and minimalist.

Google is in this case, a reverse-positioned brand.

These are brands that go against the “augmentation trend” of the category (also called feature creep).

They withhold benefits that the rest of the competition deems important to compete.

Reverse brands say no, which is big, since business mentality is so “customer-oriented.”

Most of the time, they also infuse their stripped-down value proposition with some sort of unexpected form of extravagance.

In a nutshell, these brands take away what we expect to have, and give us what we don’t expect to see. They say “no” where others say “yes” and “yes” where others say “no”.

They strip things down but sweeten them up.

They eliminate, but elevate.

Eg: Google VS everyone else; Ikea VS everyone else; In-N-Out VS everyone else; Nintendo VS everyone else.

So, why are customers attracted to brands that don’t give them what they want?

Because when you give people everything they want, they become like spoiled children. Nothing tastes good anymore, nothing is ever good enough. There is no pleasure.

As a result, in a world of satiation, elimination feels good, provided it’s properly executed.

When people are used to having too much, they appreciate missing the things they took for granted.

In a weird way, there can be satisfaction in deprivation as long as it is offered in a manner that is meaningful to the customers.

What does it mean?

That when we look at history, what we want tomorrow is probably what we have too much of today.

Less is more when more becomes a commodity.

Chapter 6: Breakaway

Humans have this need to categorize everything.

In fact, we happen to categorize something before we see it, because we need to know what it is before we can comprehend it.

Marketers know that.

When they are marketing a new technology that they know won’t work as intended, they decrease people’s expectations by changing the category.

Like they did with AIBO.

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AIBO was a robot dog built and sold by Sony in the early 2000s.

It bugged often and obeyed once out of three times due to engineering problems.

So Sony marketed it as a pet robot. That way, people would look at the robot like they’d look at a pet – and since pets don’t always obey, Sony hoped they wouldn’t be too hard on the robot for not obeying.

It worked. While the bugs were annoying, people got attached.

HBO did the same when they came up with the slogan “it’s not TV”. They broke away from the TV market to give the illusion they are not competing with other channels.

Cirque du Soleil did the same by saying “it is not circus”.

And Swatch did the same by being everything we expect a Swiss watch not to be.

All of these products and brands were part of a category, but they played out of the limits of the category.

This is what true differentiation is. Differentiation means “adding new concepts to an already-existing concept”.

It requires adding enough that it feels different, but not too much so it becomes something else entirely.

True differentiation, as a result, is a spectrum.

Brands that succeed (breakaway brands) stretch limits to the extreme.

They change the associations we had in our minds (swiss watches = conservative) and replace them with new associations.

These brands don’t create new consumption patterns. They shift the consumption pattern.

Doing so, they change who we are as well.

If you didn’t wear swiss watches because of the image…now, you could.

When you take something familiar and merge it with something familiar, you can create something that feels new.

The lesson of this is that the perception of categories is not fixed. All it takes is a perceptual shift.

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Breakaway brands can shift perceptions of products by assigning new associations.

Chapter 7: Hostility

The author, which is a Harvard professor of marketing, used to teach that effective marketing had to get three things right.

  1. The product
  2. The distribution
  3. The brand

This resulted in “feel-good” marketing where brands depict a world that doesn’t exist, emphasizing products that are not as good as they pretend to be, for customers that live in a fairy-tale world.

This is jading customers.

This is where hostile brands come in.

Hostile brands play hard-to-get. They don’t tell their customers to buy their products. They show them the door if customers dare to complain. This makes customers want to buy them even more.

Hostile brands don’t market their products. They anti-market them.

For example.

  • They’re honest about their shortcomings (MINI)
  • They’re evasive with their distribution (Louis Vuitton)
  • They broadcast attractive and repulsive messages (Benetton)
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They erect barriers to their product consumption which demands efforts to acquire them. As a result, they say something about us when we consume them.

Let’s look at an example, in our case, MINI Cooper.

While everyone was driving big cars in the US in 2002, MINI came in emphasizing the idea that the car was small.

It was a giant slap in the face to everyone else in the market that kept on trying to make ever bigger cars.

Another example is Red Bull. When Red Bull did some tasting tests, no beverage had failed on taste and look as much as they did, which pleased Dietrich Mateschitz.

These brands are “take it or leave it” brands.

When brands like this confront us in this manner, they draw a clear line in the sand whose underlying message is “you’re in, or you’re out”.

This makes us think about whether we want to buy from them or not.

Consuming a feel-good brand is no problem. But consuming a hostile brand is making a statement about who we are.

These brands create division against those that don’t like it while creating solidarity among those that do like it.

They are divisive brands.

Chapter 8: Difference

Mindlessness is a state in which we are so used to doing something that we do it automatically, without noticing.

Mindlessness does not create any frustration or pleasure. It feeds off familiarity and breeds boredom.

This is why a bit of change is nice. It stimulates us, it wakes us up.

Obviously, mindlessness has won in the supermarket today. All brands look the same because they are trying too hard to differentiate.

They are running the same race. And a race can only be run by people headed in the same direction.

Idea brands don’t compete. They are more interested in separation than comparison.

These are the brands that wake up the category and make it mindful again.

As we said, as soon as you measure something against something else, you are killing potential ways to become different.

Difference can’t be created using preexisting parameters.

What we think is different depends on what we think is the norm.

This is why any framework will only capture a fragment of potential differences.

This means that:

  1. The best way to locate difference is to look for it. Difference is difficult to define, but easy to spot.
  2. There are plenty of ways to be different.
  3. There are better ways to be different. There needs to be a departure from the means, and this departure needs to create enough significance to be meaningful. It has to deviate and resonate.

There are two types of differences. Differences that say nothing, and differences that speak volumes.

Part 3: The Human Touch

Chapter 9: Marketing Myopia, Revisited

As we have seen, human nature is pretty fickle.

People want more, until they want less.

They want new stuff, until they long for the past.

They want familiarity, until they desire change.

The truth is that human nature is not definite and it’s not solid.

Rather, it’s liquid, and it’s changing.

Our differentiation obsession has gotten us stuck in a self-defeating competitive cycle, which created two consequences.

First, companies focus almost more on their competition than they do on themselves (competitive myopia).

Second, imitating the competition to match their propositions has become a reflex.

Eg: in hotels, the soap is free, but the soda in the minibar isn’t. You can watch TV for free, but not make phone calls. And it’s like that in every hotel, and no one knows why.

The economist Thorstein Veblen coined the term “conspicuous consumption” in his book The Theory of the Leisure Class. He argues that people have forgotten why they buy stuff and do so for the sole purpose of competing with their neighbors.

This is what happens with businesses today. They relentlessly copy one another without knowing why.

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When you think about it, being different really means innovating.

The problem is that once again, innovation behaves like a herd. We innovate where our competitors think of innovating too.

So you need to innovate differently.

As we have seen, innovation can work by stripping the superfluous as Google did, or by offering less as MINI did.

You can also transform your product, as Sony did with AIBO.

There are plenty of ways to do it, and it’s not easy.

It’s not easy because these ideas were extraordinary ideas. Extraordinary ideas are fragile at birth because it is impossible to distinguish them from the bad, crazy ideas.

As a result, it is important to adopt a positive outlook on life and give these ideas a chance to develop.

Most of the time, innovation doesn’t happen because we don’t let it.

Sometimes, it’s also because we focus too much on what the customers want.

Customers will always be able to tell us how much better they want their products to be, but they’ll never be able to tell us how different they want the product to be.

It’s the famous Henry Ford quote about people wanting faster horses instead of cars.

Idea brands are not perfect. They stand for different and even sometimes, contradictive things at the same time.

The reason they succeed is because of culture and human beings. Both of them are inherently contradictory in nature.

As a result, these brands that don’t make sense on paper make perfect sense in the messy real world.

Chapter 10: Sign Off

We can do better.

Not by doing more, but by knowing why we do what we do.

Differentiation is a way of thinking. It’s thinking for yourself, instead of thinking like others.

So, what will the idea brands of tomorrow look like?

First, they will offer customers something that is difficult to find.

Big businesses solve big problems.

So the question is, what is there left that is scarce?

It doesn’t have to be something.

When we are assaulted by salespeople, quietness, for example, becomes scarce.

When we are offered choice, simplicity becomes scarce.

When we are offered abundance, scarcity becomes scarce.

The truth is that in a world of abundance, restraint becomes scarce.

Second, idea brands will reflect a commitment to a big idea.

Third, they will be intensely human.

By that, we mean that they will be designed to fit the changing state of the human experience.

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