The Safety – and Risk – of Following Trends

“It doesn’t follow the rules that other bottles do.” That is how my wife described the packaging for a dietary supplement that looked like it was made in Europe, or was from 1978.

In that instant, I considered how many brands follow the same trends, even though they are targeting the same customers and with essentially the same products. There is so much advice in the business world on how to stand out and break away from the pack, and yet it seems many businesses feel more secure failing together than succeeding alone.

Walk down any aisle in the food store. All the laundry detergent looks the same. All toothpaste looks the same. All cream cheese looks the same.

Sure, I’ve read studies about how customers have strict viewpoints about what a product is. For instance, why we are grossed out eating green or purple ketchup, but red ketchup is somehow tantalizing. That these products are supposed to support a persistent world-view, and become a source of security. That we buy cake mix in a box because it reminds us of childhood memories. That cake mix in a plastic spiral tube would likely challenge most of its target audience, and do poorly in sales.

And this is how the concept of “scale” poorly serves our culture – how the need to “go viral” and trying to be something for everyone creates markets filled with vanilla content and vanilla brands.

I especially consider this when looking at niche markets. That an author may not be happy to sell 20,000 books of her novel about vampires, because she did experience the mass success that Stephenie Meyer saw. That magazines are creating very expected iPad apps because they can’t take a chance to rethink the value that the deliver to their markets. EG: they must still sell “articles,” even though most media brands serve their audiences in a variety of other ways.

Why do most newspaper and magazine websites look exactly the same? Take a look at the websites for the top five newspapers in the US:

They all have similar navigation, tons of stories and similar use of photos. Do you know what their big innovative question seems to be? “Do we put up a paywall in front of our content?”

When everything looks the same, you can’t be blamed when you fail. I remember hearing an anecdote about why people chose to use IBM services over a smaller shop who might have better products, services, and support. The idea was: when you choose IBM, since they are known as world-class, that – if the project fails, you can’t be blamed because, you know, you went with IBM. So the responsibility is offloaded.

This is how trends persist even though we don’t realize it.

How come The New York Times’ website can’t look like Or

These questions challenge our own viewpoints as to what “normal” is, and how many mental contortions we will do to justify what is expected.

Yes, there is safety in following trends. But there is also risk. And you must ask yourself: what are you building that is unique in this world, that is adding incredible value? Do you want to be just another laundry detergent with red packaging? Is that your legacy?