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Over the last two decades, brands have become 200% less distinct from one another. The ones that stand out, however, have something in common: they integrate two seemingly opposing personality traits. In this series of blogs, I offer different methods to discovering and leveraging the duality embedded inside your brand. By tapping into these insights, you could make your brand stand out.

Duality stemming from societal trends

I remember reading a survey long time ago. It stated that the fictional character, from which the Americans are most afraid of was the Terminator. The cause of that phobia is easy to explain: The Terminator represents the deep fear that the technology will destroy us. The most interesting finding of the study, though, came next. Participants were asked the following question: Which fictional character do you like the most? The answer was… the Terminator! How is that even possible? Well, here is the irony. While Americans are afraid of robots, they also believe that technology will save us! And if you want to differentiate your brand, that is precisely the type of trend-based duality, into which you can tap.

Let’s first explain why and how duality stems from societal trends. The smart guys at Trendwatching say the following: “One massive mistake both trend watchers and brands make all the time is to assume or pretend that a particular consumer trend will affect or be embraced by all consumers (…) No trend applies uniformly to all consumers or all brands. (…) In trends, always try to figure out what the and is, not just the or.”

Every trend divides the public into two: Those who have an optimistic outlook on life see great things, while those who have a pessimistic outlook on life tend to think apocalypse is on the horizon. For instance, technology is neither good nor evil. Change is not bad or opportune. The new and improved methods are not necessarily better than the tried and tested ones.

The side of the argument on which you stand, however, is determined by your beliefs and values. That’s why for every trend there will always be a counter trend. Spotting that societal tectonic and then harnessing its built-in tension is an excellent way to make your brand noticed. Let’s see a couple of examples.

Arguably the most time-tested trend-based duality is high-tech vs. high-touch. One camp believes that technology will be embedded in everything, including your body. Dr. Michio Kaku wrote best sellers like Physics of the Future and the Future of the Mind, explaining how technology will shape our future. On the other hand, there is an equally strong belief that nothing can replace face to face interaction. For the sake of this thought experiment, you don’t have to choose a side. Instead, you should focus on spotting such polarities and then delivering on both opposites. Uber is a great example. The initial part of the user’s experience is purely technology-based, whereas the rest is depends on human interaction. The brand doesn’t pick one or the other. Instead, it delivers both. Same goes for Airbnb. There is both a high-tech and a high-touch aspect to this hospitality brand. If it fails to address on one polarity, then the brand loses its magic. Amazon excels at high-tech, yet lacks high-touch. And that’s how Zappos successfully carved itself a niche in the market (then became part of the Amazon ecosystem.)

Let’s analyze another trend. In his seminal book Kinds of Power, James Hillman highlights the changing ethos of the 1990’s, foreseeing the rise of Hermes (not the luxury brand, but the god of trade, thieves, travellers, and messengers.) Likewise, he mentions the need for Hestia (the goddess of the hearth) to rise and balance the hectic pace of life. To him, Hermes represented the urgency and future-orientedness of the modern era (go-go 80’s), while Hestia symbolized the endurance, perpetuity, and continuity. He said, “Hestia embodies in her image the preposition “in” – interiors, indoors, insight, within enclosed spaces.” Hillman’s observations are extremely accurate, for today two major time orientations are competing. On the one hand, we want everything to be faster. Quicker deliveries, newer devices, high-speed internet. On the other hand, we want life to slow down.

Meditation is more popular than ever, people are going on extended sabbaticals to rejuvenate their life, and mindfulness is a highly sought after trait. Again, brands that spotted this tension and delivered on both polarities are making headway. Take Starbucks for instance. You can pre-order your coffee online, pick it up, and leave without even paying. That’s the Hermes-side of the coffeehouse. On the other hand, you can go to any Starbucks, sit down for hours without even buying a cup of coffee, and dive deep into your thoughts. And that’s the Hestia-side of the coffeehouse. Apple Store, too, tapped into this tension to become a game changer. If you have the Apple Store app, you can scan the product, pay online, and check out from the physical store without even seeing a sales rep. On the other hand, you can browse as long as you like, even spend an entire day there. Neither Starbucks nor Apple Store chose to focus on one opposites. Instead, they embraced the polarity and ran with it.

Another polarizing trend is the tug of war between the convenient yet cheap options and high-quality yet unaffordable ones. The rising income inequality, as well as the perception of scarcity of time, pull society in two different directions. Arguably, this trend is most visible in the food industry. Compared to a century ago, the man on the street can afford to buy significantly more food. That said, the quality is highly questionable, especially if you consider the rising rates of cancer. If you want to eat organic or more sophisticated food, though, you still have to pay a substantial premium.

The city of  Montreal recognized this tension and cleverly created a wonderful solution: The Montreal food truck project! Not everyone can operate a food truck in Montreal. The Association des Restaurateurs de Rue du Québec (ARRQ) has a mandate to showcase culinary diversity and freshness. It evaluates each potential food truck, requiring the food truck owners to audition and present their vehicle concept and offerings. Food trucks are judged by their external, aesthetic appeal. The result is a flurry of flashy artwork-wrapped trucks with eclectic and diverse menus. Street food becomes affordable mobile haute cuisine thanks to dishes such as lobster truffle cappuccino. Montreal is hardly alone in this. The Finnish company Street Gastro, too, offers premium-quality fast food.

Chic vs. cheap, big data vs. meaningful insights, local vs. global, soul food vs. fuel food, eco-consciousness vs. fast obsolescence, and much more. As we said earlier, every trend creates its counter trend. Finding the ones that are dominant in your line of business and then delivering on both of them could help you create a highly differentiated brand.

On the next installment of this series, we will try to find ways to create tension by tapping into your brand’s dark side. If you find this article useful, please feel free to share it with your colleagues.

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