Lateral Marketing: The Power of Choosing to Be Different By on January 14, 2014

Whether you’re CEO of a large corporation, or a passionate individual trying to make it on your own, there’s an unforgiving law of business; you need customers. But with some traditional methods of marketing being cost inefficient short-term, others even completely inaccessible to single person efforts and young companies, what do you do? Thinking outside of the box can have customers coming to you, instead of you having to search for them.

zebras-dare-to-be-different-moushLateral thinking, means to solve problems through a creative and original approach. And that’s what lateral marketing is all about. By choosing to be different, you can set yourself apart from the competition and create free publicity, extra good-will or an increased willingness to buy your products.

Sometimes it can be achieved without meaning to do any such thing. In December last year, a Norwegian man, Svein-Roger Johnsen, who wanted to rent out his apartment chose to do something a little different. Instead of specifically not renting out to pet owners, he chose to only rent out to pet owners. This not only caused his original Facebook post to go small town viral landing him 20+ offers on the first day, but he ended up getting featured in a local newspaper. (Source)

So while we’ve established the theoretical power of being different, it’s time for something a little more tangible. Examples of exactly where and how you can choose to be different, with examples demonstrating the efficacy of the plan in question. Demonstrating the where and the how of choosing to be different.

Set Your Price Differently

In the battle between the two smartphone giants; Samsung and Apple, people are now theorizing that it came down to one thing in particular; that it was price that tipped the scales for Samsung’s increasing market share. (source) While Samsung also focuses on variety and has a couple of different models, they all target roughly the same demographic, with similar user interfaces and general capacity, the main difference between their products is the noticeable difference in price.

But it’s not just a one way street. One psychologist suggests that when it comes to things the potential buyer isn’t too familiar with, or where it’s hard to assess quality on other criteria,  a higher price can induce trust in the quality of the product, and make him/her more likely to buy rather than less likely. (source) One example of this is over at binpress, where components that were more expensive not only had much higher revenue, but more sales as well. (source)

In the global marketplace it has become increasingly difficult to be the lowest bidder, with many companies relying heavily on outsourced labor. You can make sure you stand out by proudly carrying a price tag that suggests you’re not part of that trend. A price tag that insinuates an increase in quality to the possible consumer, and of course, it would be in your best interest to provide that quality as well. According to the theory, perhaps in industries where it is harder to assess quality based on pure statistics, like coaching, consulting and even content marketing, an increased price would be the best fit.

Go Against The Grain

If you’re familiar with computer gaming, you probably know of Alienware. It’s a brand that instead of focusing on a lower price, focuses primarily on one thing, designing computers that gamers will like. Things like making laptops that can be overclocked because of an extra powerful fan and there’s a very heavy focus on the aesthetics. The design. And not on making one-design-fits all, clean and simple designs like Apple, but gaudy, flashy designs that truly stand out from a crowd.

Changing your priorities to match your target market can only be achieved if you truly understand your customers. The people behind Alienware were probably privy to the fact that a lot of gamers bought expensive, flashy desktop cases to show off at meetups, and took advantage of that when they designed some of their flagship laptops. High performance, gaudy and flashy laptops with options like changing the color of the light emanating from the keyboard. This has enabled them to sell expensive laptops, without having to compete with the largest companies.

A completely different example is Khan Academy which became a non-profit instead of just another online education start-up. That one simple fact bought it, and Sal Khan it’s founder, a lot of good-will. Despite going through a very rough patch in it’s early stages, finally with the help of increasing interest from the general public, it effectively became the most known online education platform. Without tons of venture capital to invest in standard marketing.

Of course being funded by donations is not a viable business model for most ventures, but if you feel more strongly about the mission or idea than the business itself or making money, it can definitely be an option to consider, because it lends a sense of authenticity to your claims of prioritizing the mission first, not profit. If you can shift your priorities to better match your ideal target market, you can get them to market it for you.

Another similar example is the idea for a more environmentally friendly and much more customizable phone, where you only change parts whenever they become obsolete, instead of the whole phone. A new way of embracing technological progress, while trying to minimize the environmental consequences. Of course for anyone unfamiliar with the concept, it is called PhoneBloks, and it’s social reach went further than 350 million, with over 900.000 supporters.

This is a clear example of how ignoring the priorities of your competition, and doing something completely different can help set you apart in such a powerful way that it generates tons of organic interest in your product or service.

Focus On Quality And Service

WPEngine is not your standard, get started for one dollar kind of web host. Instead they have focused on service all the way, and are actually quite legendary in the blogging community for both their service, and their uptime. If you blog yourself, or if you just read a few regularly, you’ve doubtless seen testimony supporting their hosting.

Instead of going the price route, and competing with major companies like Hostgator or Bluehost, they focused on two things in particular. First of all they narrowed their target market down to WordPress users, but the most important part is that they focused on providing the best possible service, and the best possible quality product for their users.

Focusing 100% on quality and service in an industry where price seems to be the deciding factor, is a way of choosing to be different. What at first may seem like a risk, helps you not get put in the same category as what could have otherwise been staggering competition

But establishing what prices, priorities and your focus can be difficult. That’s where the next two ideas come in, embracing your existing customers, and narrowing down your target market and really getting to know them before appealing to them.

Embrace Existing Customers

There are two approaches to this, one approach is to make sure you get repeated business from clients. For digital or physical products, there is the membership model where one continues to pay for access or continued subscription. Think gym membership and a magazine subscription. Another model is where membership is free but extras cost money. Online one of the most staggeringly successful examples would be League of Legends, a game that is completely free top play, that has items to be unlocked for money. The company responsible for LoL, Riot Games, had 200 million dollars in revenue in 2013.

The other part of the approach, revolves around being in touch with your existing customers. Listening to them because you realize they are members of your ideal demographic. One of the things Riot Games does right, is that it takes their members and their opinions very seriously. There is even a section in the forums where the members can make their own suggestions for characters to be developed. And they actually do develop some of them. Plus, with many of the developers being very active players themselves, it’s not hard to see how they can stay in touch with their target demographic so well.

Apple had an interesting development in the 2000s. It had started to realize who preferred their laptops, and you noticed a definite change in their marketing plans. One of the symptoms is that with their laptops, they decided to focus heavily on it’s simplicity, and comparatve safety due to virus creators largely targeting Windows operating systems. And then increasingly embracing it’s “cool” factor and prevalence in creative circles, it even has ads that reference it’s superiority when it comes to video editing and similar activities.

And instead of trying to develop the new super-gaming computer, they focused on embracing their existing customer base. Of course while also recruiting new members from the same demographic. Despite anything any quarrels you might have witht Apple and their pricing policies, you have to admit that they have one of the most loyal customer bases in the world.  People are marketing their products day in, day out without ever having a monetary or other incentive to do so.

How can you do the same?

If you’re not already familiar with who your customers are, find out. Hold a survey, find out anything from their age, their occupation/education to geographic location, but make sure you ask them  two things: What made them buy your product, and what they think you can improve.

If you have a physical store, rather than a web based business, simply start conversations with your customers. Ask them the questions in person, or even hand out a physical survey.

Narrow Down Your Target Market, Then Appeal To Them In The Best Possible Way

Again, AlienWare, WPEngine and even Apple comes to mind under this point. With Alienware instead of trying to appeal to the general pc-buyer, or even the standard gamer, they chose to focus on affluent gamers that cared not only about performance but a lot about design as well. WPEngine focused on hosting for WordPress bloggers. When you narrow down your target market, you are better able to cater to the needs of most of your customers, which in turn makes it easier to make a lasting great impression.

If you’re not yet at the stage where you have a target market, much less an ideal customer, there’s more information on finding your  ideal target customer in this article on Duct Tape.

Don’t be afraid to go against the grain. In fact, I would encourage you to go against it. That’s the whole point of lateral thinking.

After you’ve established an ideal customer, there is one thing you need to know over everything else. Out of price, quality, design even country of origin, and whatever else is relevant for your product or service, what is the most important? Remember to consider even the non physical aspects of your product, like the message or mission of your company.

Or as perhaps the most important lesson from Svein is, if you are like your target market, what is the most important to you? He understood the importance of a pet to a loving pet owner, being one himself. And that alone made him “accidentally” make a great business move without even trying.

You need to enable yourself think exactly like your customer. This might be part of the reason for why the “problem solving” based business model works so well.

And this principle isn’t just applicable to business ventures. You can apply it to for example your job search. If you need a job pronto, you can imagine who’s most likely to hire you based on your current qualifications, aka your ideal target audience. Or you could narrow down your own dream job, imagine their dream candidate, and model yourself to that ideal. Start developing the skills you would need to get hired.

Recently, when I first started to try to break into freelancing, I dismissed things like my Norwegian nationality and my experience, because I thought the “market” was too narrow, that there wasn’t enough opportunities. Instead I found that when I focused on jobs that required Norwegian, I instantly became one of the viable candidates. And while there were less opportunities for sure, I saw more positive responses from the few applications I sent, compared to the overwhelming amount of ads I had responded to previously.

So instead of jumping through endless hoops, and sending in hopeful applications to jobs I was unlikely to get, I narrowed down my potential clients based on my background and experience, and I’ve had much better results ever since. Infinitely much better as I actually got hired as opposed to not hired at all.

One thing that’s for certain is that the only true way to know how to stand out to the right crowd, is by knowing them well, even being one of them yourself. If you have that, you just might end up like Svein, freed from worrying about exposure or recruiting new customers in the near future.

Author bio: Ragnar is a freelance writer from Norway. When he’s not obsessing over psychology, copywriting and improving his craft, he writes about personal development and his path to location independence on his blog Tangible Freedom. And in case you’re wondering, he has no correlation to the main character of the show Vikings, except sharing the badass name. Connect with him through Twitter, Google+ or his blog.


  1. Ragnar, this post is awesome. I’ve never been so happy to be a weirdo. 😀

  2. Thank you Ragnar for this wonderful post. I get to understand more that focusing on quality and service, with good price, will always make your product to stand out in the market place.

  3. Sweet article, Ragnar!

    I like to see you show off some of your hidden expertise. I didn’t know you were so knowledgeable about marketing. I’m familiar with a few of the examples you’ve provided here, from reading marketing books in school.

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