Imagine you are invited to a party. You want to get noticed by other partygoers. Or you want to be recognized as a “cool” person by those who you are interested in. The “coolness” will result in some social benefits you desire. This is a scene of “social evaluation,” in which you want to stand out of the crowd of peer actors (competitors) to impress the audiences (customers and suppliers). If you succeed, the peer actors will admire you, the audiences will adore you, and of course, the esteems and profitable relationships will follow. Now the question is, “how to position yourself to be ‘cool’ so that you can win the game?”
Practically, the first question coming to your mind might be “to what extent should I be similar to or different from others?” You want to be different so that you can stand out. However, you don’t want to be too different so that people think you are wired. Your goal is to “impress” but not to “surprise.” It is a bad idea to violate the audience’s expectations on your appearances and behaviors – the commonly accepted “norms.” Violations typically lead to penalties.
Excessive differentiation is risky. It jeopardizes your “legitimacy,” the potential for being accepted by the audience, who controls the resources and opportunities. Now the headache you get is — being similar places you under competitive pressures (so you can’t stand out) but being different gives you the risk of losing legitimacy. Then, you may find a simple solution: find a middle ground between the two extremes — “to be different as ‘legitimately’ possible.” Good. You got a “holistic” approach, in which you consider all the audiences, attributes, and evaluation processes as a “whole.” And you have a clear goal—maximizing the total audience perceptions. It is implementable. It is the wisdom of Confucius’ as well as Aristotle’s “Golden Mean.”
If you don’t want to stop here, let’s think further. We can do some analysis1, by moving away from the “holistic” approach to an “analytical” one. For example, we can anatomize the positioning problem in three ways: (1) separating the evaluating audiences, (2) separating the actor attributes, and (3) separating the evaluation processes.
First, different audience groups (government, customers, investors, etc.) may demand different levels of conformity vs. differentiation, so you can deploy specific positioning strategy to target specific audiences (e.g. horizontal websites tend to give different people different things while vertical websites tend to meet specific people’s specific needs). Second, as audiences allocate their decision weights among multiple dimensions of difference, you can conform on most of them to maintain legitimacy and then differentiate on a couple of others to look cool (e.g. in a party, people always care about dress code while worrying about outfit clash). Third, as the audiences typically engage in a categorization process before making the final selection, you can strategize for “entering the game” and “winning the game” separately (e.g. audiences tend to make a short list first, select the winner from it. No matter you want to design a website or find a job, to make it to the shortlist, you need to first figure out the similarities that help you stay relevant; and in the selection stage, find the differences that help you win).
The positioning problem shouldn’t stop here. As audiences evaluate actor attributes with their subjective minds, numerous factors (cognitive, sociological, cultural ones) determine how individual opinions aggregate and emerge as market behavior. Researchers have been studying the patterns, drawing inferences and making predictions. Importantly, there could exist positive and negative feedback loops for the mutual influence between actor behavior (strategic action) and audience perception (performance evaluation). This is what I’m interested in.
Deephouse, D. L. 1999. To be different, or to be the same? It’s a question (and theory) of strategic balance. Strategic Management Journal, 20(2): 147–166.
Zuckerman, E. W. 2016. Optimal distinctiveness revisited: An integrative framework for understanding the balance between differentiation and conformity in individual and organizational identities. Handbook of Organizational Identity.
Zhao, E. Y., Fisher, G., Lounsbury, M., & Miller, D. 2017. Optimal distinctiveness: Broadening the interface between institutional theory and strategic management. Strategic Management Journal, 38(1): 93–113.