Always Different, Always the Same

In this week’s Thursday Night Insight, Oliver Truman ponders whether being unique and innovative is always something we should strive for.

Plagiarism. It’s a word loaded with negative connotations, but we’d all have to admit to indulging in a little copying in our time.

It’s often said that the majority of popular music is highly derivative. To pick one trite example, only a few weeks ago, a music rights company successfully brought legal action against the 1980s antipodean pop behemoths Men At Work for “stealing” the signature flute riff of the song from a copyrighted nursery rhyme penned many decades ago by an Australian primary school teacher. And only the other day, the shuffle function on my mp3 player threw up another lawsuit-in-the-making: The Jam track Set The House Ablaze was immediately followed by Helicopter by Bloc Party – The guitar refrain in both songs being almost exactly the same to the note. I cannot imagine Paul Weller ever assenting to his work being used in this way.

We know from a lot of our work in the education sector that plagiarism is a particularly hot topic – New GCSE specifications being introduced this year will do away with many of the coursework elements of courses in an effort to curb the problem of copying from the Internet and drawing on parental help. In its place, pupils must complete assignments under “controlled assessment” conditions – effectively an exam in a classroom. In the consultation work we’ve done with the teaching profession in the run up to the new GCSEs, doubts have been voiced as to whether this focus on “cheating” is at the expense of encouraging children to be creative.

In the higher education sector, of course, ensuring plagiarism doesn’t take hold is crucially important to the vitality of intellectual thought and the academic process – and this rigour is instilled right from the very start at undergraduate level. Universities are actively seeking to use electronic systems of submission of students’ assignments so that all work handed in can be automatically verified using automated systems.

Looked at another way, though, plagiarism is possibly best seen as the flipside of the insatiable human desire for true innovation. Anything that is very obviously the same as something else is railed against – Not just because it might have been appropriated without someone else’s permission, but also because of the “oh no, not that again!” effect. And attempting to be genuinely different is the perennial challenge laid at the feet of marketers (and by extension, market researchers).

Taking all elements of the marketing mix – price, product, place and promotion – market research is often seen as the gateway to addressing how a company can position each of these uniquely against its competitors. But as all the best ideas are thought of – it could be argued that the room to innovate is closing.

From a price perspective – The supermarkets provide no better example of the way in which cost can be eliminated as a genuine differentiator. The shopping comparison site Mysupermarket demonstrates this amply. A simple search for virtually any branded product reveals that all the major players have pricing (promotions excluded) that is nigh-on identical. A few months ago, Sainsbury’s even ran a national print media campaign highlighting the fact that the products shown “Look the same… and cost the same”. And I thought price fixing was illegal(!).

Taking promotion as another example – a lot of the segmentation work we do is with a view to addressing the common needs of like-minded customers with effective, targeted and relevant marketing and service. This is a laudable ideal, and an approach we’d naturally endorse. However, segmentations only work if they’re usable and it’s here that our obsession with always doing “something different” can come unstuck.

When segments are awkwardly labelled, indistinct from each other in the real world and where there’s too many of them, an “innovative” approach soon becomes an unworkable one. Something far less glamorous, tried-and-tested but, crucially, actionable is the one that sometimes needs to win out. In other words, it’s sometimes better to be roughly right, than precisely wrong.

So what’s my conclusion in this innovative/conservative debate? I’m going to shirk out of this one, I’m afraid, and go for something non-committal by returning to the theme of music. I’ll leave you with the words of the late John Peel who, in describing one of my favourite bands, The Fall, concluded they were “always different, always the same”. Awkwardly for us market researchers, we have to be both too…

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