What do Cindy Crawford, Lauren Hutton and Jimmy Stewart all have in common? Each has a feature inseparable from his or her celebrity, yet these distinguishing traits were initially considered flaws. Cindy's mole was airbrushed off in her early magazine shoots. Photographers would fill in the gap in Lauren' teeth with mortician's paste. Jimmy had trouble getting cast in leading roles due to his boyish voice and mannerisms. Wisely (thankfully), instead of changing into what they thought others wanted, these iconic individuals embraced their quirks and turned them into fame-defining assets.

More companies could benefit from a characteristic mole. In the last 10 years, the number of brands in the world has quadrupled. So has the number of channels in which companies are competing to communicate their message.

Getting to the heart of your brand's "weirdness" could very well be a competitive advantage in an increasingly cluttered marketplace.

Too often, during a stall in sales or turnover in management, it is tempting for companies to change the things that make them stand out from the norm--and worse, homogenize with their top competitors. It can be easier to address challenges with a new concept (or in some cases, not so new), rather than get to the root of the real problem. Instead, brands will create a shiny new logo or launch a fresh ad campaign hoping to get customers to take notice again.

Learning through industry best practices can be beneficial, but don't apply them to the extent that you begin to blend in. Over-optimize, and you lose everything that makes you special. Try to offer something for everyone, and appeal to no one. A more successful approach is to accentuate your weirdness and lean into the differentiated features of your brand--which aren't always what you think they are.

To be clear, I'm not suggesting you should stay status quo, frozen or afraid to reinvent; evolution is absolutely critical to every company's sustained success. I'm talking about not forgetting what makes your brand unique. Those are the qualities that make your brand liked and loved--much like a person-- and should inspire your brand for the future.

To illustrate, I recently worked with a retailer wanting to increase its sales by increasing store visits. Company leaders believed the problem was that their store wasn't your "typical store." People thought of this chain as a party supply store as opposed to a general retailer; it just wasn't top of mind for consumers' daily purchases. They believed that if people thought of them as a more broadly appealing option, people would shop there more often.

That's true, but is that really the end goal? Our perspective was that while a change could make people shop at the store more frequently, it could also make the brand appear pretty generic. But being the store that is about parties is a much more emotional space to be in, and data actually supports that. It turns out the most unconventional stores are the most loved.

And the thing is, people have a real need for this party store. Maybe just not as often as the company would like. So instead of changing its positioning, we suggested the brand lean into the fact that people associated it with party supplies. But take that a step further, and let's define more occasions as parties. It was really about getting the food and supplies needed for larger gatherings of friends and family. Additionally, our research revealed that with a rise in both unemployment and the cost of living, more families are living under one roof than ever before. Which means more gatherings are happening on a regular basis. So, in fact, this retailer's weirdness could prove to be a competitive advantage in today's economic climate.

There are some brands that already get it. Marshall's turned its limited, unpredictable inventory into a treasure hunt. Southwest made peanuts a celebration of savings and an inspiration for a nutty culture. Ikea made Swedish meatballs part of the furniture shopping experience. The city of Austin was smart enough to realize that becoming commoditized would zap the soul out of the city. "Keep Austin Weird" was a slogan adopted, lest they forget (and the inspiration for the title of this article).

Weirdness can come from many places. It can even be the thing a company is most embarrassed about. Often it's hidden right under your nose (and a little to the left, if you're Cindy Crawford). Is it the unexpected group of customers who don't quite match the target? Is it a cultural tradition that hasn't been shared outside company walls? Is it a dated but iconic product you've considered eliminating?

So next time you are gearing up for a big change, stop and have your brand take a look in the mirror. Where is its weirdness?

Published on: Oct 28, 2014