CEO: Intimidate or Imitate?

 

Quick, name the largest American manufacturer of paperclips. Unless you’re in the biz, you can’t. Answer: ACCO, for American Clip Company, which began operations in 1903.

The other major supplier is Officemate International. According to the Wall Street Journal, only federal protectionism (import tariffs that expire in 2016) keeps these two vendors — both of which sell a variety of other office products — making clips in the USA.

Newsflash: Makers of commodities are barely profitable, virtually unknown, and have no brands. Naming a product, in and of itself, isn’t tantamount to branding it — a critical point I drive home in Be Unique or Be Ignored: The CEO’s Guide to Branding.

A brand is unique and has incremental, coveted value. Customers and investors reward unique value with extra cash and loyalty. A commodity, such as a paperclip, has marginal, functional, presumed value and is purchased on price and delivery.

An applicant interviews for a position in your company. She gloats about having earned her MBA from Harvard and working at IBM (merely product attributes). Big deal. There are plenty of Harvard MBAs at IBM. Your bottom line: Why should I hire you? What can you do for me? How are you better than the other applicants?

So, you want incremental value, not product attributes — just like your customers. Hmmm…
 
Waiving Your Brand

The quickest way to become a commodity is to imitate your competitors — to waive your brand, to surrender. Alas, many CEOs begin this process on incorporation day by infusing jargon into all company and product messaging.

Let me repeat: imitation is surrender. To use jargon is to imitate. To imitate is to confuse customers, investors, and reporters. Do not expect to be rewarded for imitation, unless you’re Frank Caliendo doing a bang-up impression of John Madden in Las Vegas.
 

 
Parting Advice to CEOs

Your job is to intimidate competitors, not imitate them. Not gangster-style intimidation but through stellar, agile, unexpected performance and unique, powerful branding — in other words, waving your brand — which a purveyor of commodities cannot achieve.

The if-we-can’t-beat-’em-join-’em attitude sounds so sweet at industry conferences and in social media, but it does not intimidate competitors or impress customers, investors, and reporters.

Surrendering is for the unimaginative imitator who waives his brand and sells commodities — or soon will be selling commodities.

The question is, Do you intimidate or imitate?
 
POSTSCRIPT #1: Zenefits CEO Parker Conrad Intimidates, Doesn’t Imitate

POSTSCRIPT #2: The Verge: 2015: The Year All Tech Companies Looked the Same

 

About the Author

Marc Rudov is a branding advisor to CEOs,
producer of MarcRudovTV, and author of the book,
Be Unique or Be Ignored: The CEO’s Guide to Branding.

 

© 2015 Marc H. Rudov. All Rights Reserved.

 

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