I’ve long heard that vanilla is the best-selling ice cream, yet I’ve met very few people that say vanilla is their favorite. So what’s going on? How can a flavor that few love be a best seller? It wins because it is less offensive to more people. Few love it, but few really hate it. Vanilla is a safe choice.
That seems to be the strategy of a lot of businesses: play it safe and offend fewer people than your competition. The opposite approach is to be very clear about what you are and what you aren’t and focus on the customers who truly appreciate what you’re about. Rather than being some things to all customers, the focus is on being everything to some customers.
Likewise, many (most?) people approach their careers and lives that way. It’s pretty obvious from the sameness of LinkedIn photos and bios that the goal is to fit in, be like others, don’t stand out. Don’t veer too far away from the tribe norms. And, on some levels, there’s nothing wrong with that after all vanilla sells more as a whole.
The problem is, it gets passed over more, too. Vanilla sells more, but no one is passionate about it. I gravitate toward ice cream flavors with names like “Chocolate Armageddon” but you might hate that. You might prefer straight up mint chip. Others go for rocky road. We push the vanilla aside to get to what we really want.
When we look at products, businesses, or even people that folks get really excited and passionate about and want to go out of their way to champion, support, and tell others about, it’s never a plain vanilla product, business, or person. The things we get passionate about, the companies we are loyal to, the people we really want to help succeed always stand out in some way.
If we choose to stand out, there will be naysayers, critics, and people who don’t like us. But there will also be the raving fans. If we choose to play it safe there will be few naysayers, critics, or people who don’t like us. But there will also be few cheering us on.
Being different doesn’t guarantee success. In fact, it often impedes it. First impressions do count, the image we present to the world does matter; people judge us based on the information we give them. I can’t control my height, gender, race, age, etc. but I can control how I dress, how I’m groomed, what I say, how I say it, etc.
Being different doesn’t guarantee success, BUT successful people are often different. They think different. They operate different. They have a different message for the world. And they get different results.
So often it seems that the giants don’t norm off of everyone else. They aren’t looking to see what others are doing before deciding what to do. Instead, they go their way and let other choose to follow or not. It’s ironic that so many of our icons are also iconoclasts.
The guys over at Talent Anarchy (twitter: @talentanarchy) refer to our individual uniqueness as our freak flag (a term I love). It’s not about piercings, tattoos, and blue hair. It’s about owning who we are as individuals and being comfortable and honest enough to be really authentic. That is really, really hard to do. And, done right, there is scary, incredible power there.
It’s a tough choice. But remember: sometimes the choices that look the safest are actually the most dangerous. After all, when was the last time you bought vanilla ice cream as a treat for yourself?(This was originally posted at fool with a plan on May 31, 2012.)