Importance of Differentiation: The Fight Against Monoculture

I had been going to New York City for over 25 years. I absolutely love the place. The diversity, the people, the excitement and the energy. But I had started noticing my affections and interest in the last few years wearing off. I could not put my finger on it. Figured it was just me. Don’t get me wrong I still love going to New York City but something felt off over the last few years.

It was not until I read Yancey Strickler that I figured it out. His example of real estate nails it. The local bodega, local restaurant, neighbourhood boutique or unique retail store were disappearing as commercial landlords were raising rents.

“What happens when these businesses leave? New businesses that can maximize how much money they generate move in. And these businesses are, inevitably, chains. Fast food, retail, banks, and others whose operational mantra is based on capital efficiency. Investors make money, franchises notch a new location, and the neighborhood suffers a significant death.

“Behind this dynamic is a monoculture of money optimizing for more money. An investment mentality that hollows out our culture. Real estate is just one example. It’s happening across many segments of our society.”


Because of this endless drive for growth, Manhattan was literally becoming much less diverse, less unique and thus less interesting. Commercial homogenization in all the bad ways. This is not just New York City, I returned to Bangkok and London after a 4 year hiatus and saw the exact same thing happening there: an influx of literally almost every major global chain store. This is not just a hipster complaint (Anyone who knows me, knows I am far from a Hipster).

This Disneyfication or Starbuckization (both meant derogatorily) of global commercial culture is happening all across the globe. All across North America, across Europe and Asia.

Compare New York City to Portland, Oregon. What I jokingly call the Hipster capital of the United States. Where boutique hipsterdom has run amok. It has become a caricature with its own show “Portlandia” but mainly because it has character. Or even Tokyo, despite a large number and influx of global chain stores, it is still able to retain a uniqueness and diversity that most other top cities of so called Developed countries were not able to keep.

Perhaps this is why I am especially drawn to places off the beaten track like Central European (ex-Soviet bloc) region, Taiwan or Latin America. Or for me Japan especially which has a boutique craftsperson culture along with chains. Maybe it’s that I like looking for stuff that is unique & different. Much easier to find this in cities like Kyiv, Belgrade, Buenos Aires, Budapest, Taipei or Helsinki.

So what? I think this is a key lesson for all businesses. How do you differentiate when almost every product and service category is so crowded these days? How do you build something unique and that has personality?

Positioning Book is an old but still one of the best books to think about for any business and marketing strategy. If you cannot be Number 1 or Number 2 in the category, REDEFINE the category. The best way to define the category? It’s the one thing that all the most memorable and unique companies share.

“is that they are clear on their purpose and they follow a strict code in its pursuit. They don’t want to be everything to everybody. They just want to be themselves.”

It’s not about fitting in. Why would you imitate or copy them when they all literally look alike and act alike. Besides, you can’t compete with them head on as they have way more resources than you do, so that is not a winning strategy anyways. You focus on what only you can provide. You focus on being different. You focus on building something that is a reflection of your personality, character and values.

Basically “DON’T SELL OUT!” This is relevant whether you are building a business or a career.

“Don’t compete to be the best, Compete to be Unique” — Clayton Christensen

Or as the cofounder of Kickstarter Perry Chen said “F-ck the Monoculture!”

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Ever curious: Tsundoku, Reader, Aspiring Shokunin, World traveller, Investor & Tech/Media exec interested in almost everything!

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