Marketing & commerce

Marketing has become a Game of Clones

By Rudy Moenaert | November 11, 2014 | 6 min read

The more we talk about brands, the stronger they level off. It has become a Game of Clones. Professor of Strategic Marketing, Rudy Moenaert, writes about the factors that contribute to this.

Beeld: © Nationale Beeldbank

I recently saw the teaser for the fourth season of Game of Thrones. This is without a doubt one of the most addictive television shows I have ever seen. This series, just like DeadwoodThe WireBattlestar Galactica and now also True Detective, are a sharp contrast to the numerous cowardly talk shows and air-headed reality programs. I can only bear the nonsense of Come to Dinner when I arrive back home mentally wrecked after three days of executive teaching in the Netherlands. But even then I can only suffer shallow programs like these on the Samsung flatscreen, with an Ardbeg whisky.

The lack of differentiation in the media was recently sublimely and painfully summarized in a video clip by talkshow host Conan O'Brien, when he made a ruthless compilation of identical statements on different networks. But remove the brand name from the interior of the vehicle, the facade of a bank building, the door of a refrigerator, the foyer of the hotel, the curriculum of the business school... Would you be flawlessly able to dentify the brand?

The more we talk about brands, the more they level off. Why is that? It has become a Game of Clones. The following factors contribute significantly to this.

Karaoke management

In These boots are made for walking (1966) Nancy Sinatra sang: "You keep samin' when you oughta be a changin". This is so apt for the marketing landscape. Every time a competitor introduces a new feature, we immediately absorb it into our own offering. The successful authors Ridderstråle and Nordström define this as Karaoke Management. What we get is market decay:

"The 'excess society' has an excess of similar companies, that employ the same people, who have had similar training, who are employed in similar jobs, who launch similar ideas, manufacture similar products, at similar prices and of similar quality"1

Karaoke management ensures that companies spread their resources across an increasing number of initiatives. Volvo can focus on designing a safe vehicle and Maserati differentiates in the more sportive segment (the amazing Ghibli commercial during the 2014 Superbowl is an excellent example). Ford, on the other hand, introduces all kinds of products to the market. Fast, big, small, expensive, cheap, environment-friendly, diesel... But it does not distinguish itself in any way. Ford remains af-FORD-able, but the buck stops there. If Ford were to shut down across the globe, I would not miss them on the streets.

Jan Koum, co-founder of WhatsApp, put it into words perfectly: "I want to do one thing only, and I want to do it well". It did him no harm. René Redzepi, the famous Noma chef, has no desire to imitate others when designing his dishes: "We don't have lemons in Copenhagen, period. It is no longer a thinking exercise, it is logic".

Healthy curiosity

Anouk Lagae, the Chief Marketing Officer of Duvel, recently told me that, in many companies, managers are insecure overachievers : hard-working, careful in exploring the margins, and every once in a while, they try something new.

Why did we abandon our curiosity, such a great virtue? Former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt summarized it beautifully: "If a mother at childbirth were able to ask a good fairy to bestow upon her child the most useful gift, then in my opinion, that gift would be curiosity". Have you seen the Internet film in which Kayden, a 15-month-old toddler, discovers the phenomenon 'rain'? Why can't we, using the power of astonishment, demonstrate that same sincere curiosity when analyzing clients and competitors? What went wrong after we left our childhood? Has our diploma granted us access to business life, and locked up our imagination in a safe?

It is this form of curiosity that led the American Republican Committee to establish the Para Bellum Labs, an innovation cell that wants to attract Silicon Valley talent in order to shape big data for the Republicans.

Communism of quality

The numerous quality certifications also destroy client value. I am a rabidly opposed to slavishly obeying this recipe. it creates communism of quality: everyone is trying to score in terms of well-defined criteria, and no one distinguishes him/herself as a result. Scientific research has shown that innovation in ISO 9000 companies has a more incremental nature2. Do you find that strange? Does the best football triangle in history – Xavi, Messi, Iniesta - send out a formal request before delivering a splitting pass? The many procedures level off what's on offer. A strong current erodes every piece of art to a round boulder. 

The list culture does the rest. Every category is grouped according to test purchase, as if we can put an exact score on an exceptional experience. Those responsible for training programs and the media are no different: rankings in the Financial Times, The Economist and Business Week result in an increasingly dull uniformity in business school country.

One feels proud to be included in the Financial Times top 100. Have you ever tasted a whisky because it ranked 38th on a list? I first became familiar with Ardbeg Corryvreckan simply by tasting it, and it wasn't until later that I discovered how incredibly high this drink of the gods ranks in Jim Murray's Whisky Bible.

Communism of quality, it is a fierce formulation. It is an expression used by a manager that caught my attention. Unfortunately, it is merely a mild illustration of the reality in some companies, where quality employees behave like the Stasi of the quality movement. Equally unproductive as it is inevitable in imposing strict levelling off. Let me be clear: quality systems do not produce innovating quality. They are an administrative, self-licking lollipop.

It strikes me time and time again that the players who turn the market structure upside down, have no concern at all for the quality standards in the market. WhatsApp reached 450 million users with a few dozen employees. Would a Quality Employee be tolerated in a such a flat organization, or would the quality be defined by all employees? It is ironic that consumer organizations, that glorify lists, are themselves being threatened by the on-line reviews in a cyber-community that does not care about lists of that kind. "Our competition is a mother on Twitter expressing her opinion about her car seat."3

Unfinished creativity

Mark Twain observed it early on: "You cannot rely on what you see if your imagination is not in focus". Big Data, however instrumental in acquiring insight into the modern-day client, is an sich not enough to achieve success.

Creativity starts with abandoning every assumption and dogma. Everyone has the ability to do so. But leaving one's comfort zone requires perseverance and practice. You should continuously ask yourself the question: when was the last time that you did something for the first time?

An example. During a creativity program, the teacher instructed the participants to draw a chair. Afterwards, the participants were asked to draw an extremely novel chair. It took everyone around 10 minutes to finish his or her 'masterpiece'. The teacher had a look at the results and was not satisfied. He asked the participants to give it their all and draw a never-seen-before chair. They were given fifteen minutes. Once everyone felt like Leonardo da Vinci, the teacher returned. Without even glancing at any of the designs, he burst everyone's bubble: "Let me guess. All of your chairs are still on the ground?".

Christmas trees

Strategy sessions are all too often a sum of 'What can we do to please the client even more?'. By doing everything for everyone, the company fails to do anything unique. That was the main message in Kim and Mauborgne's blockbuster Blue Ocean Strategy4: you can improve an offer by adding new elements (the sporty Tesla design) or by improving existing elements (better batteries that enhance the range of the car). But you can also improve the supply by reducing aspects (the passenger space) or by eliminating aspects completely (going from a hybrid design to a 100 % electric engine). I once had the displeasure of driving a Prius in Australia. It is the closest I will ever get to experiencing 'ugly-shoe box-on-wheels'.

We deck out our products on offer as though they were Christmas trees, adding more and more decorations, and more and more lights. But we forget to ask ourselves the crucial question: "What it is we won't do anymore?". This Christmas tree metaphor, that I have been using for years during my lectures, inspired a Dutch advisor to write a thesis on the subject.5


In the first season of Game of Thrones, Cersei Lannister, a shrew you love to hate, remarks: "When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die"6. Her listener, the honorable Ned Stark, later experiences this personally. In episode 9 of the first season, he is decapitated...

In the Game of Clones the outcome is a sure thing: you lose. Actress and cabaret performer Lily Tomlin noticed it long ago: "The problem with a rat race is, even if you win, you're still a rat". Marketers and managers often moan about the cut-throat environment in which they operate. They would be wise to follow the advice of Amazon-founder Jeff Bezos: "Complaining is not a strategy".

1 Ridderstråle J. & Nordström K. Funky business. Harlow, Pearson, 2000.
2 Benner M. & Tushman M. "Process management and technological innovation: a longitudinal study of the photography and paint industries", Administrative Science Quarterly, jg. 47 (4), p. 676 - 706
3 Jacobs R. "Consumer testing bodies fight to stay influential", Financial Times, January 13, 2014.
4 Kim W.C. & Mauborgne R., Blue ocean strategy. How to create uncontested market space and make the competition irrelevant. Boston : Harvard Business School Press, 2005.
5 Laar M. Managing Christmas trees : Antecedents and performance consequences of product proliferation in the manufacturing industry in The Netherlands. Ph.D Dissertation, Nyenrode, May 30, 2011.
6 Her listener, Ned Stark, experiences this personally. He is decapitated in episode 9...
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