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Have you read “The Age of Average,” the piece by Alex Murrell that bemoans the visual sameness of just about everything? Architecture, automobiles, ads, branding—the resemblance within each category is striking. If you’ve been wondering why everyone is starting to look like Kim Kardashian, give it a read.
Murrell is a keen observer of average-ification, especially in design. It’s hard not to share his horror of homogeneity.
But is average bad for business? Cars may look the same because they are all subject to the same wind tunnel or shared chassis, but maybe their commonalities just represent what customers want right now.
And is looking average the same as being average? We don’t think so. Average can be useful in growth strategy.

EQUALLY ATTRACTIVE

How does average happen in the first place? Is everybody copying that one clever person who came up with something original?
In nature, mimicry is a useful strategy. The spicebush swallowtail butterfly manages to look like bird poop, a snake, and a leaf to shield itself from predators. More relevant to marketing are creatures that mimic others as a way to attract mates or prey. Female Photuris fireflies, for example, imitate the repeating glow of female Photinis fireflies. Responsive male Photinis fireflies think they are about to get lucky with one of their own species. Instead, they become a tasty meal for the lady Photuris.
If you are launching a new product, imitation may be a similarly useful strategy. Adopt your competitor’s look and steal some share. There is a reason that Instagram’s Reels looks a lot like Tiktok and created an “average” for social video.
In other words, in the right hands, average can be a strategy to attract customers. Converting and retaining them, however, may be a different story.

WHAT'S UNDER THE HOOD

Knockoffs like Reels notwithstanding, imitation can be a useful way to introduce innovation. If your new dog food is made from crickets, delivering the kibble in the same shape as a leading brand may be a good way to overcome any ick factor. Average-looking dog food may be differentiated through non-average ingredients.
Liquid Death is a great example of using average to advantage in innovation. What looks like your average beer can in fact contains a high class of water. Mimicry is the whole point of the product.
In these cases, average is a clever way to remove objections to something new or an in-joke that drives appeal and loyalty among underserved non-drinkers.

LAZY DAZY

Of course, in the wrong hands, average-ification happens for less strategic reasons. Like, um, laziness. Why do any thinking when you can copy your friend’s work?
Fast-food restaurants, for example, have taken a page from the book of design not-thinking. Their interiors all look the same. Book covers tend to jump on the bandwagon—witness the “book blob” trend the last few years.
Let’s say you are designing an ad for your new product launch. Borrowing the style of the moment may satisfy your tack toward trendiness, but it’s arguably not the best way to convey that your offering is differentiated. This kind of average is not strategy. It’s a substitute for thinking. And the ad world is full of examples.

WHEN TO USE AVERAGE

How do you know when to step out vs toe the line of average? Test, of course!
Let’s say you’re in charge of innovation at your company. You’re launching a new widget. Should it look average? Or should it be a complete departure from the status quo?
First, stop thinking there’s a single right answer for how to create a successful product launch. Even if there is, you don’t know it—no focus group or survey will tell you how people will behave when they see your product in the wild.
Second, create design options that are deliberately different from each other. Develop a version or two of your product design that looks average. Develop a couple more whose design represents the radical innovation you’ve developed. Then heat-test them side by side.
Heat-testing shows how audiences behave when presented with ads and landing pages representing multiple possible strategies. It’s kind of like A|B testing but for strategy, not web pages. Because it’s multivariate, heat-testing performs numerous experiments all at the same time. It’s a great way to assess whether average will outsell something altogether original and a powerful way to derisk your growth strategy prior to launch.

MORE INSIGHTS

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