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Dare to be different


In my last post I asked how we recognize the difference between a dog and a cat, and how Artificial Intelligence achieves the same. Now that facial recognition systems are becoming very accurate, I also looked at the next stage of this technology, which is being used to decide what the emotions of people are likely to be. The idea is to spot – for example – someone who is perhaps going to do something bad, before they do it.

Now in this last week comes a funny story about facial recognition – by a man who didn’t recognize his own face. Or rather, he saw a face which he thought was his. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology Review published a scientific article, ‘The hipster effect: Why anti-conformists always end up looking the same.’ The subtitle was, ‘The counterintuitive phenomenon in which people who oppose mainstream culture all end up looking the same.’ The author is the mathematician Jonathan Touboul whose special subject is the study of how information is transmitted through society. He’s interested in both conformists who form the majority, and non-conformists who do the opposite of whatever the conformists do. Touboul decided that a good example for his latest study would be hipsters – those guys with thick beards, wooly hats and skinny jeans, who always seem to be carrying a cup of coffee.

Touboul’s findings were that hipsters, in trying to be different go through a ‘phase transition’ in which all the members of the ‘tribe’ become synchronized with each other in opposing the mainstream. This is something we have all noticed, I’m sure. But now comes the funny – and ironic – part: The MIT Review article was illustrated with a stock photo, rather like the stock photo I’m using here.

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Dare to be different

A non-conformist hipster saw the picture, and got very old-fashioned angry that the magazine had used his image without asking permission, or paying him for its use. He threatened to sue the magazine. The Editor checked with the Art Department, and the Art Department checked with the Stock Photo Company, who produced the signed paperwork to prove who the guy in the photo was – a paid model, who was not the complaining hipster! So the offended hipster had rather neatly proved the point of Touboul’s article.

This isn’t such a strange phenomenon of course – we all see it all the time, and we all take part in it. Go to any corporate conference and most of the men will be in chinos and open-necked shirts. They’re not meaning to copy each other, but they’re another example of ‘The counterintuitive phenomenon in which people who oppose mainstream culture all end up looking the same.’ OK, so corporate men aren’t opposing the culture, but if you asked any of them about their ‘uniform’ they would probably be quite offended, because they see themselves first and foremost as individuals.

Get a bunch of people in a room to sing any note which comes into their head, and pretty soon they will all be moving towards a ‘fundamental’ – an agreement about the common pitch. This is a frequently-used warm up exercise used by vocal coaches, and it always astonishes the participants the way everyone merges into one note.

So from Hipsters and singing, to Tokenized Offerings, and marketing. 2018 saw Peak Geometric on the websites of the ICO and STO community. At least I hope it was the high tide of those geometric shapes that everyone seemed to have as graphic backgrounds to their Whitepapers and Roadmaps. Then there were the digital countdowns to the launch – no website was complete without one of those. The Roadmaps and Whitepapers themselves were getting ever-more formulaic too.

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It’s a natural process – as seen from Jonathan Touboul’s work – that we merge with and copy what we like and admire, and we are attracted to what we see initially as different or revolutionary. The first geometric background and digital clock combo must have really impressed people, so they decided to use that idea themselves on their launch website, and the good idea spread and became a cliché. Quickly becoming a cliché is the problem with all marketing, and the reason why marketing must be kept continually refreshed and engaging. And yet there is also a constant pressure to be the same as everyone else. Think of the sales aisles of supermarkets and the spread of products there.

Dare to be different

There’s no particular reason why all the shampoo bottles should be so similar, or all the cereal boxes the same format, but they are. OK, I know there are packing considerations and shelf space requirements, but the fact is we like to be able to recognize that we are at the cornflake shelf, or the hair products shelf. The same is true when we’re looking to invest in a new tokenized offering.

So like hipsters who are trying so hard to be different that they all become the same, the marketing approach of ICOs and STOs sets out to be distinctive, and runs into the danger of being just like everyone else. I’ve even heard clients say, “We want to be really different, to really stand out.” Then when the agency presents the first drafts of the website design, or the mock-ups of the whitepaper, the call comes, “When we said different, we didn’t mean that different!”

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The year is quite young and perhaps it’s too soon to see what the marketing trends are yet. I want to challenge my clients, and everyone’s clients to Dare To Be Different about marketing – to ‘push the envelope’. Unlike the hipster who thought the MIT Review was using his image, let’s make sure that we never confuse our own marketing material for that of someone else.


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