The Psychology of Sameness

It was a morning like any other. I sat in traffic, looking through my windshield at a highway dotted with cars that all looked more or less the same.

Suddenly, a thought popped into my head. I turned down the stereo, grabbed my pen and notepad, and started jotting down a new idea — one that might have some legs for a new Hyundai campaign I’m currently working on. I finished writing and looked up. Traffic still wasn’t moving. Typical.

My mind wandered. I began to think about the creative process itself. The idea I just had: where did it come from? Did my mind always work this way? Did I have these types of spontaneous revelations 10 years ago? (If so, I don’t remember them.) How does one’s mind evolve to be able to generate effective ideas? And what differentiates a good creative thinker from an average one?

In the beginning, most artists must learn their crafts, to a large degree, by imitating better, more-experienced artists. You make a subconscious leap of faith. You find yourself impressed by a veteran artist. You watch from a distance as attention and praise are lavished on them. The pull to imitate them is almost gravitational; without intention, you silently conclude that what they are doing must be right — and by contrast, what you are doing must be wrong — and so, you follow.

The young filmmaker, hence, may study the work of Coppola and Scorsese, and try to mimic their handle of mise-en-scene and montage. The young guitarist may listen to Pink Floyd and Cream, and try to duplicate the languidly complex fretwork of Gilmour and Clapton. And the young ad copywriter may study historically significant campaigns like VW’s “Lemon” and Maxwell House’s “Good to the last drop,” and begin tutelage under the ghosts of Bill Bernbach and David Ogilvy.

Of course, the ability to imitate requires only a modicum of talent. What separates the true artist from the average practitioner is simple: the former eventually evolves to develop his or her own unique voice, while the latter builds a career from parroting. Like any true talent in any form, advertising geniuses are rare. The vast majority of creatives in this industry are driven by the psychology of sameness. They may read an informative quote from Bernbach (“In advertising not to be different is virtually suicidal”), or a though provoking proclamation from Ogilvy (“The consumer isn’t a moron; she is your wife”) — but it doesn’t matter. A mid-level talent such as this may chew his lower lip and nod in awe, but soon enough he’ll be back at his PC pecking out bad puns and “concepts” that are both self-defeatingly ordinary and disastrously insulting to his audience’s intelligence.

Part of the problem is a lack of empathy. Good creatives know that, in order to craft meaningful communications, you need to empathize with your audience — to understand their worldviews and “pain points” within the context of the product or service you are selling. But very few people are wired for empathy.

I once worked with an account executive that kicked off a new project by telling me that one of our automotive clients wanted to launch a multichannel campaign to increase parts and service revenue. Things were slow at the dealerships, she told me, since customers were opting for the less-expensive and more-convenient alternative offered by their local quick lubes.

“OK,” I started, “explain to me why our customers should go to their dealerships for service. Why would that be good for them?”

The AE stared at me with a deer-in-headlights look. “Bee-cause … ” she searched her brain for an answer, “our clients are looking to increase their parts and service revenue?”

I work as a creative director and marketing strategist for a top-10 CRM agency outside of Philadelphia. I oversee creative work for clients in the automotive vertical (OEMs). Over the past five years or so, my team has developed and rolled out creative for companies like Mazda, Hyundai and Kia. You may look at those brands and think: “Oh, a bunch of Tier 2 automakers.” You wouldn’t be alone in thinking that. In fact, the people who work at those companies feel the same way. And they hate it.

Take Hyundai. The company’s early history in the U.S. is one that chairman and CEO Chung Mong-koo would likely sell his spleen to erase. In 1986, Hyundai introduced a single model to the American driver: the affordable Excel. Within two years, that econo car was so widely known as being phenomenally unreliable, it became the butt of a David Letterman joke. One of his “Top 10 Hilarious Pranks to Play in Space” was: “Paste a Hyundai logo on the main control panel.”  Only Yugo provided a funnier punchline.

But the company made a miraculous turnaround. In the late 1990s, Hyundai Motor America (HMA) took the long view and began pouring millions of dollars into research, product development and quality assurance efforts. The goal was to create cars that were on par with the likes of Toyota, Honda and Nissan. Once engineering and design caught up, these new high-quality vehicles would be offered to the public at a lower price point, and backed by a 10-year, 100,000-mile power-train warranty (unheard of at the time) — and Hyundai would slowly win back the confidence of the American car buyer. This they did. Today, the perception of the Hyundai nameplate is about 158-degrees different than it was 20 years ago. Moreover, the company’s trophy shelf is heavy with quality awards from J.D. Power and Associates, Strategic Vision, Consumer Reports and many others.

HMA has invested an incredibly ambitious amount of time and money toward renovating its brand image. Accomplishing this goal has been a patient and arduous undertaking. And the company is at the point where it wants to step up from its lower rung to become a Tier 1 automaker. HMA has been my client for almost five years now (currently, my team represents its CRM agency of record), and in that time I’ve worked for no fewer than three different vice presidents of marketing and as many brand agencies. The company’s marketing arm has historically struggled to attain this sought-after Tier 1 status, largely due to a perpetually in-flux management situation; with so many pilots replacing one another at the helm, the result has been a default marketing strategy that would have Hyundai shape its brand in Toyota’s image — rather than doing it on its own terms.

Here’s a telling story. When HMA was preparing to launch its redesigned 2006 Sonata, I flew to Fountain Valley, Calif., and sat across from the vp of marketing at the time, a 40-something man I’ll call “Don.” (It bears mentioning that Don no longer works at Hyundai.) Don was a broad-shouldered guy with sun-bleached hair, and a tan that looked like a mixture of natural sun and something artificially orange he’d sprayed on. He had big ambitions for the Sonata. He identified its three chief competitors — Toyota Camry, Nissan Altima and Honda Accord — and expressed concern that his vehicle might not have the brand power necessary to cut itself a healthy slice of the midsize sedan pie.

As a starting point, I noted that the three competitive vehicles he’d mentioned were all Japanese, and all rather similar in terms of style and amenities (read: boring). Further, I pointed out that the redesigned Sonata aesthetically resembles the Audi A6 far more than it does any of those sedans. With regard to market positioning, I suggested that we strategically differentiate the Sonata from the others by identifying its European styling. Then we could highlight the car’s strongest assets — its class-leading interior room, class-leading safety, unmatched warranty, lower sticker price, etc. — and derive from those features a wealth of benefits that would describe a driving experience that is truly outstanding and completely unmatched. We could create, in essence, the anti-Japanese sedan.

Don shook his head. “No, no, no, no,” he said emphatically. Then he excused himself for a moment. When he came back to the conference room, he slid a brochure for the 2006 Camry across the table. “This,” he punched his finger on its cover, “is what we’re doing.”

TNS Media Intelligence quantifies total advertising expenditures in the U.S. to have grown to almost $150 billion last year — roughly 2 percent of the Gross National Product. Forrester Research reports that consumers are exposed to more than 3,500 marketing messages per day. With so much noise being poured into the various channels, it’s a wonder anyone’s voice is heard. More than ever, advertising needs to really stand out to be noticed. Beyond that, it needs to work; it needs to effectively persuade. But shockingly, most companies seem to be dedicating their share of this huge collective expenditure in the opposite direction — toward making the public think that they are really no different from their competitors.

Look at Mazda. The company has spent years carving out a sweet little branded niche for itself. Its brand essence, as you likely gathered via osmosis, is “Zoom-Zoom” — a phrase that’s intended to embody the inherent exhilaration that should come from the experience of driving, that place in the heart and mind where drivers reconnect with the “emotion of motion” they first felt as children on a merry-go-round. Mazda’s brand promise? That every vehicle it produces — be it a drop-top roadster, family sedan, SUV or minivan — has “the soul of a sports car.”

As branding goes, you could do a lot worse. But during my tenure with the company, Mazda’s marketing reps were in a state of perpetual dissatisfaction. Mazda vehicle sales grew year over year, and its brand became nearly ubiquitous (most people you ask can likely identify the creepy kid in the black suit whispering, “Zoom-Zoom,” by the side of the highway).

No matter. They wanted to be a Tier 1 automaker; and not just any Tier 1 — a specific Tier 1. As my team, along with various other creative vendors, would bring new material to Mazda, we’d often get the same reaction: “This is good stuff, but … I don’t know. Can’t it be quirkier? More like … ” You can guess what came next. “Volkswagen?” Langweilig.

With Hyundai, it’s easier to empathize given the company’s history. Once all that R&D money finally delivered quality vehicles to which Hyundai could proudly attach its nameplate, the company still needed to lure prospective buyers to take the plunge. How would they convince the public to ignore Hyundai’s dubious history and buy its cars? Especially when tried-and-true, highly reliable Toyota was waiting for them? Simple: beat them on price.

The sales pitch went something like this: Hyundai’s vehicles are just as good as Toyota’s, but priced thousands lower. This may sound surprising, but read the automotive press and you’ll see. The smart driver with a discerning eye knows where the real value is. What kind of driver are you? And why would you pay more to be just like everybody else?

This approach has served Hyundai well. Within the world of non-luxury vehicles, Hyundai has an unmatched identity. Having largely won back the public’s trust, Hyundai cars are now much more widely known to be just as good as Toyota’s (and in many cases, much better equipped), but at a more sensible price. If you’re a price-conscious car shopper, what are your other options? Kia? Isuzu? Suzuki? Do you really trust any of these names? (Speaking of which, here’s a great prank to pull if you ever find yourself in space: Slap a Daewoo logo on the shuttle’s control panel.)

Bottom line: Hyundai owns this positioning. But historically, its shopkeepers have pulled away from it. Midway through the 2006 Sonata launch, Don instructed me to cut any mention of or allusion to the sedan’s competitive price. He also directed us to severely tone down the presence of “America’s Best Warranty” in our collateral (as such, the self-mailer we created features only a cursory mention of the warranty on its inside-back cover). “This car is just as good as the Camry,” he said. “It’s time we stopped apologizing for it.” On the surface, Don was making complete sense. The Sonata is just as good as the Camry. But if you make that claim to the in-market sedan shopper, what impact could it possibly have on her? If you truly empathize with her, if you earnestly consider her point of view, you see that this claim is ultimately meaningless. Because if she does believe you, you’ve done nothing but establish your car as a me-too product in relation to a long-trusted and highly regarded nameplate; you’ve done nothing but make your car, and by extension, your brand, obsolete.

HMA, as it has been implied, is a remarkably forward-thinking and self-aware company; it keeps its eye on the future, and keeps itself in check. Its marketing people have done an outstanding job of steering Hyundai away from the brink. Guys like Don come along and pilot the Hyundai brand through familiar waters, but they never last long. Someone always manages to right the ship — refocusing the brand’s efforts on what works: defining a company that offers great vehicles at great prices to discerning drivers. (The “Think about it” campaign is emblematic of this.) Still, the psychology of sameness will periodically creep in from time to time. When that happens, people like me reflexively groan as if we’d just heard that it’s going to rain for the next 10 days straight.

Perhaps I should pause here and offer an apology to those mid-level copywriters I insulted earlier. After all, they aren’t the only guilty ones.

The psychology of sameness extends far and wide: client-side marketers, product managers, designers, engineers, journalists, digital media developers, TV producers…you name it. It’s a silent, chronic, low-level disease. It lives in the warmth of our routines, and spreads via personal interactions and mass media — slowing creativity, limiting business potential, hanging like a weighted ball on our cultural growth and personal evolutions. There is no vaccine or quarantine, nor will there be. We’ve all silently agreed to just live with it.

As I drove back from lunch today, I passed row upon row of housing developments, all of which may have come from the same builder as far as I could tell. I pulled into the parking lot of my cookie-cutter building, and passed a long strip of cars that could scarcely be told apart if it weren’t for their badges. I walked into my office and passed a barrage of faceless co-workers dressed in a narrow variety of khakis, polo shirts, pantsuits and sensible shoes.

I closed my office door and unlocked my PC. On the wall across from my desk I keep a mounted replica of Bernbach’s aforementioned “Lemon” VW ad. (I’m looking at it right now as I type.) I keep it there to remind myself of the importance of being different. “If your advertising goes unnoticed,” he once wrote, “everything else is academic.” And I believe him. Even if the outside world seems hell-bent on providing an incessant stream of evidence to the contrary.

I will sip my coffee, think, and wait…wait for that perfect idea to come to me. One that renders a combination of words and images that has never been seen before. One that effortlessly communicates why this brand is singularly different, what it says about you as an individual, and why any other choice would be tantamount to a mere compromise.

Then I’ll crack my knuckles and begin typing again.

Greg Ippolito is Director, creative and strategy, at Harte-Hanks Direct. He can be reached at greg.ippolito@gmail.com