Breaking Category Norms: 6 Brands That Went Against The Flow

In the world of brand strategy, there are norms in each category that are considered to be the wisdom of the day. These rules are in flux, responding to changing market dynamics and consumer expectations, but it is uncommon for brands to deviate from norms. Occasionally, however, someone decides to go against the flow. In today’s market, being bold is a dangerous game. Those who fail can be swiftly punished. But innovation is the hallmark of leadership, and successful innovation signifies a brand is in step with its consumers.

Here are some great examples of iconoclastic brands that are winning by going against the unwritten rules of their category.

#1. Chanel. No e-commerce.

Despite having a gorgeous website that allows you to ALMOST shop Chanel’s luxury products, you can’t actually purchase most items online. They are opening more boutiques and directing those browsing online to get in touch with their local Chanel stores to buy fashion and accessories.

Crazy? Most other luxury fashion brands went to a full e-commerce shopping experience during the pandemic. Is Chanel going to kill their business by ignoring this channel?

If sales are any measure, the answer is no. Chanel is doing better than ever – sales were up 17% in 2022. Why? Because exclusivity is what makes Chanel special. Those who shop luxury brands do so because of the service, the high quality of the products, and the experience. And Chanel is not ignoring digital, but rather using it to tell stories and showcase their products in a compelling way.

Understanding and living your brand values means understanding your customer intimately and delivering a unique value proposition. Brand strategy should be your guiding light and will help you make decisions based on what your customers value about your offering. More on segmentation here.

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#2. Trader Joe’s. No self-checkout. It’s all about people.

Trader Joe’s has never been bothered by trying to fit in. The brand has always focused on service by taking better care of staff than their competitors and teaching them how to provide exceptional customer experience. Today, as many retailers struggle with the issue of theft at self-checkout, Trader Joe’s continues to offer only manned checkouts with real live humans with no plans to change course.

Will they continue to be holdouts forever? Will customers demand self-checkout? Trader Joe’s is fortunate to have a loyal, passionate consumer following. One of the hallmarks of the brand (and part of the reason for this loyalty) is great service. Although self-checkout technology will no doubt improve and someday might offer a great experience, today it is not ideal for retailers or customers. In the meantime, Trader Joe’s has been spared the headache of the extreme shrink related to self-checkouts.

You don’t have to jump on every trend. If it’s not right for your customers and your brand, leaping onto the bandwagon can feel inauthentic to consumers. Staying on top of the trends is important, but knowing which trends matter to your consumers is even more critical. Inspiration: 2023 Trends Report.

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#3. Lush. Quitting social in solidarity.

Lush Cosmetics quit social media in 2021, citing harm being done to young women and teenage girls on social platforms. The brand took a hit as it struggled to rejig marketing efforts, but today a mental health app, live chat on the brand website, experiential activations, and strategic partnerships have helped Lush overcome the loss.

This is not a decision the brand took lightly. When they announced the move, CEO Mark Constantine stated he was willing to lose millions to do the right thing. “We’re talking about suicide here, not spots or whether someone should dye their hair blonde,” Constantine told the Guardian: “How could we possibly suggest we’re a caring business if we look at that and don’t care?”

Although pandemic-related shifts in consumer behavior make it hard to quantify what happened to sales as a result, following their departure from social Lush’s sales were actually up. In spite of social media being a huge driver of beauty sales, the brand’s current strategy is to maintain innovative approaches that help them stick with their anti-social move.

Living your brand values is easy when there is nothing at stake. By making this bold move, Lush demonstrates more than lip service to their values. It has also forced the brand to take more innovative approaches to connect with consumers and create more meaningful differentiation in a crowded category. Resource: How to Define Your Value Proposition.

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#4. Knix. “That’s a niche product.” Oh really?

Joanna Griffiths’ success with Knix was predictable in hindsight: millions of women needed a product that didn’t exist. Despite investors who saw “unsexy” leakproof underwear as “too niche” to support, she persisted because she knew she was right. Griffiths struggled against category norms that said women’s undergarments had to be appealing to men (as well as investors who doubted her ability to lead the company as a mother of three). Today Knix sells an item every 7 seconds.

Knix was one of the first lingerie brands to replace traditional models with real women, to use red liquid rather than blue to signify menstrual blood, and to frankly address issues about women’s bodies that are treated prudishly by conventional brands. At a time when Victoria’s Secret executives thought they could do no wrong, Knix came along with “unsexy” underwear and ignited a huge shift in the category.

Brands that fail to recognize unmet consumer needs run the risk of disruption. However, it takes more than just white space for independent brands to win. Check out the key characteristics that define indie brands here.

#5. Bonobos. Stores where nothing is for sale.

The men’s clothing store, famous for its perfect-fitting pants, launched as an online-only brand. When they made the move into bricks-and-mortar, they chose not to stock stores with racks of clothing, creating what they call “Guideshops” instead. There are products in store so customers can try on clothing to find their best fit, and then either together with an advisor or through digital tools, leverage their profile to order personalized choices, which are then delivered to their door.

This kind of shopping experience is one that many retailers are puzzled at – but it has resonated with Bonobos’ consumers. The advice-driven, highly personalized service model has made Bonobos customers loyal brand advocates – in fact, co-founder Andy Dunn estimates 50% of their new customers come because of referrals.

Just because things have always been done a certain way doesn’t mean it’s the only way or the best way. By getting shoppers to interact more intimately with fashion advisors and their platform, Bonobos creates a stickier customer experience. Resource: Creating an Omni-Channel Customer Journey – Worksheet.

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#6 Cirque du Soleil. Lions and tigers and bears no more.

The circus had become an antiquated idea that seemed likely to fade into obscurity. Trick-performing animals had long been the stars of the big top, but awareness about widespread animal cruelty soured audience perception.

A small troupe of street performers in Quebec who were performing nouveau cirque acts got their break as part of the 450th anniversary of Jacque Cartier’s discovery of Canada. The troupe leveraged generous grants to create a visual spectacle that took the crowds by surprise. Although Cirque du Soleil was not the originator of nouveau cirque, this opportunity to take it to new heights was a defining moment that changed our collective understanding of circus forever. Reinventing the circus became the ethos for their first touring show. This idea sparked the imaginations of audiences and gave the brand latitude to take artistic risks and essentially own the category.

When a category is becoming irrelevant, innovators see opportunities. Leveraging scenario planning and other futures-related tools can help brands tap into hidden markets waiting to be opened. See how scenario planning can work in action: The Supermarket of the Future.

The Supermarket of the Future

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The Takeaway

Going out on a limb doesn’t always succeed. When it doesn’t work, it’s usually a result of brands not being in line with consumers, market conditions, or their own organizational needs. Before making a bold move, brands need to ensure it’s being driven by consumer needs, aligns with their purpose, and is well supported internally. That being said, when going your own way makes sense, it can be a strong differentiator that drives loyalty.