The term ‘outlier’ is closely aligned to research statistics. A data point that sits apart from the rest. It could, in simple terms, be a statistical error, or it could be something truly interesting, even inspiring.
For me, an outlier typically represents a zag when the norm was to zig. The person or brand that chose to defy convention. Some zags are intentional, some unintentional, either way the effects can be ground-breaking.
Historic zags (and what they represent)
Lego is a brand that continues to successfully zag. Starting with the humble plastic brick for kids, they went on to build a dedicated theme park, expanded product creations to adults, successfully integrated electrification through motors, and more recently they became a content producer through their movies. Those are some big zags for a business that originated in kid’s toys.
Then there are the zags that end in failure – A German R&B duo named Milli Vanilli were deemed unmarketable. The zag that followed was to recruit two models to become the face of the band. The models went on to mime numerous live performances, and in 1990 even accepted a Grammy for 'Best New Artist'. The zag unravelled when the backing track got stuck on repeat and the models, whilst performing for a live MTV audience, found themselves hopelessly outed on stage.
The outtake is that, as per the Lego example, a zag must be true to who you are, which is why other musicians such as the rock group Kiss created personas using make up to make themselves more marketable.
Virgin is a brand that has made numerous zags, yet not all were a success. On numerous occasions, Virgin has adopted the role of challenger brand by playing up to the Robin Hood archetype, attacking monopolies who keep prices high, thus stealing from the rich to give to the poor. When staying true to this archetype, Virgin has challenged the status quo in completely unrelated categories: moving from music to travel - Virgin Airways successfully offers cheaper flights than Qantas.
However, their foray into communication through Virgin Mobile has been a mixed bag, depending on the country and in Australia it turned into a failure as the communication duopoly was eroded by increased competition, meaning Virgin could no longer deliver on the premise of being Robin Hood. Arguably Virgin’s worst zag was the launch of Virgin Cola, since the consumer never felt ripped off by the two big players - Coca Cola and Pepsi - in the first place.
Good or bad, I still applaud the outlier for taking the risk and for challenging the status quo since it meant that their business or brand was set up to act on innovation rather than procrastinate. Too often we see businesses making marketing decisions based on confirmation bias:
· Every other brand spends at the same time, so we should too
· Sales are highest over this period, so that’s when we should spend
· Research says that people and pets in ads cuts through
· Everyone’s doing TikTok, or everyone’s coming off Twitter, cue knee jerk reaction
· And the list goes on
The issue is that instead of insight, facts can become a way to confirm your existing beliefs and subsequent actions and it requires a brave vision to buck the trend.
For example, the team at Microsoft who launched Xbox were originally laughed at, and Jack Ma, the founder of Alibaba Group (China's largest e-commerce company, now valued at $230 billion), was known for years as "Crazy Jack”.
It’s too easy to say it can’t be done, so perhaps if you’re not thinking a little crazy then you're not thinking big enough. For me, it’s better to get under the skin of the facts, rather than just accept them.
Why is this the norm?
What if we took an outlier position and therefore zagged?
Zagging as a blanket rule is not the right approach. However, it does provoke questioning that may support why you zig in the first place, as well as highlighting any value in zagging.
Tontine’s zag is well documented. Before they introduced an expiry date on pillows, when did you decide that it was time to change that pillow? For me it was the yellowness - and the more I think about that, the more repulsed I feel about my own hygiene.
This decision by the brand wasn’t just about increasing purchase frequency though - it also played to product quality; they knew that their pillows lost their comfort and support after two years, and therefore a person may get a subpar sleep. The date was therefore more than a gimmick; it was a tool to ensure a better consumer experience.
When the original zig remains the best course
In England, number plates play a crucial role in identifying the age of a vehicle, and for decades August signaled the plate change for a new vehicle. This created a huge surge in sales as buyers rushed to have the newest car, creating a demand peak based purely on newness The answer was not a zag, it was a refinement of the zig.
To help smooth out the sales peaks of new cars, the governing auto industry agreed to launch new plates twice a year. For most purposes this worked, and with new plates every six months, it broke the annual cycle. As shown in the image below.
When a zag becomes a zig, so you zag again (Confused? Let me explain...)
Many brands are now focusing on sustainability, and as more brands follow suit, this zag has become a zig. And with that comes issues as the intent of the zag may be lost.
Personally, I am against the use of brand purpose to drive sales. Sales should never be the end game for purpose. Conversely, I support all brands that want to be part of driving behaviour change that benefits society.
So, when a brand such as Colgate shares their recycled packaging IP with all competitors for a better world, that truly makes me smile. Since that right there is an outlier mindset.
Adopting an outlier mindset
Being an outlier is more than just zagging – it’s about leveraging a unique position for behaviour change.
It's easier said than done though. For example, when millions of people read a book, they will often collectively agree that the author's advice is a formula for success. But they mistake that advice for universal truth.
Tim Ferriss' book, The Four-Hour Workweek, caused a tidal wave of aspiring digital nomads. Millions of people believed they could follow in his footsteps and achieve similar results. But for many of them, it's been a road to poverty or nowhere.
Evidently outliers are bad role models when you don’t question the advice in the context of your brand or business.
When to zag
As humans, we value the status quo and stability. But we need to understand that disruption and turbulence can be beneficial. In fact, down turns like the one we are on the cusp of, create the best opportunities to zag. Many of the best inventions came about during a difficult time or when people had to weather challenges. For example, J.K. Rowling, having been fired as a secretary, zagged, and went on to write the Harry Potter series.
The big outtake
Being an outlier takes courage to step outside of the comfort zone, and there are numerous books dedicated to being an outlier.
Malcom Gladwell - Outliers: The Story of Success
Kevin Hong – The Outlier Approach
Melissia Earnest - Focusing on Outliers
Kai Bird – The Outlier
Linda Rottenberg – Crazy is a Compliment: The Power of Zigging when Everyone Else Zags
They form a counter point to the books that discuss the same companies, the same concepts, resulting in - guess what - the same cliché advice. However, take note: this does not mean that these books contain universal truths. You must always question, and then question some more to sense check if you keep zigging, or to see if a zag represents the right opportunity for your brand or business. Then be decisive as time waits for no one. By embracing the outlier, you move away from the herd mentality, the confirmation bias, and in that moment, you create the opportunity for growth.