In marketing and business, what’s the absolute fastest, surest, most painful way to get your ass kicked?

Fighting the top brand in your category by trying to be just like them.

Here’s how that “works”. (Spoiler alert: it doesn’t, but stick with me a sec.)

First, you pick a fight with the heavyweight champ.

Then, you ignore whatever boxing strengths you might actually have. Doing what you do well instead of what the Champ does well, from a Best Practices POV, is why you’re a loser. The whole idea here is to fight exactly the way the champ does.

I should note here that the current unified heavyweight world champion, Anthony Oluwafemi Olaseni Joshua is six feet six inches tall, and has a reach of 82 inches.

Which is really just another way of saying:

  1. Mr. Joshua can knock your block off from more than two yards away;
  2. There’s a good chance you won’t see the punch coming because you’ll be standing in his shadow.


But, you can take pride in the fact that in the few milliseconds it will take for Anthony Joshua to beat you into a coma, you will have been following Best Practices!

You’ll have been boxing exactly like him, except for the part where they bring a Wet-Vac into the ring to clean up whatever is left of your shattered body.

In the history of business, I can’t think of a single instance where copying the market leader enabled a company to unseat that leader. But I can think of many times when once-great companies lost their focus and derailed by becoming obsessed with being “just like” the market leader.

Fortunately, there are plenty of smarter, better ways to fight and win.

If your business plan requires you to battle heavyweights, then your best bet is to change the playing field. For more about what I mean by that – and how to do actually do it – read this. Always know what game you’re playing, on whose playing field, according to whose rules.

But if your business plan doesn’t require you to fight competitors who are impossibly strong, you have all kinds of freedom – including the freedom to get weird.


J. Peterman, Hammacher Schlemmer, and the Genius of Peculiarity

Early in my career, I was a freelance writer for the J. Peterman catalog for 10 years. Looking back on it I see now that I was being taught a master class in the genius of peculiarity.

My job was to mimic the voice of Don Staley, who created the catalog. So in my time writing for the catalog I learned how to write about peculiar items like burnooses (that’s my copy in the banner image) and monocles (there’s a fun story about that here) in a way that inspired normal people to buy them. At the same time, I learned how to imbue a nice but fairly ordinary jacket with 1930s-era intrigue.

“She pretends not to see the British agent coming, pretends not to notice his cologne. He bumps into her shoulder, hard. The only thing she feels is the envelope, thick with money, in her hand.

An hour later she emerges from a shop wearing a jacket she’d stared at in the window forever, the one she’d nearly spent the rent money on.

The next day she drank an exorbitant glass of champagne, and smiled. She had a ticket to Lisbon in her pocket.”

J. Peterman was peculiar in every respect. The writing was different than any other catalog. The product images were paintings. The shape of the catalog was different from any other catalog. It was so peculiar, in fact, that on May 18, 1995, a character named J. Peterman suddenly appeared on Seinfeld. Nobody knew about it at the catalog until after it aired –– including the real J. Peterman.

Any brand with courage and imagination can be peculiar in their own way. There’s a terrific article in Chicago magazine titled “The World’s Most Peculiar Company” that opens with an intriguing question.

“How does catalog-loving retailer Hammacher Schlemmer, famous for such eccentric and extravagant products as the Navigable Water Park, continue to survive in the age of Amazon?”

Instead of going toe-to-toe with Amazon and getting bludgeoned (Amazon’s share of US e-commerce is now 49%, or 5% of all retail spend), Hammacher Schlemmer stayed true to their roots. They were, and are, the anti-Amazon – and that’s a damn smart thing to be.

45 percent of the items in the catalog are exclusive to Hammacher Schlemmer; anything that’s not exclusive is given a unique new name. Why? The company knows that if they use the same name, people will just search for that product on Amazon and buy it there.

The company is aggressively, strategically peculiar.


For Amazon to feature a $90,000 Killer Whale Submarine on their home page, Amazon’s AI would probably first have to suffer a catastrophic stroke.

But Hammacher Schlemmer understands the value of surprise: the genius isn’t in how many Killer Whale Submarines they sell, but the peculiar shock that comes from the idea that they sell one at all. (Does the cockpit’s dashboard include an LCD that displays live video from the dorsal fin’s built-in camera? Of course it does.)

I’m not saying you have to be as peculiar as J. Peterman or Hammacher Schlemmer to win against a dominant competitor when you’re hopelessly outgunned. But your marketing strategy should begin with asking yourself some very simple questions.

“Can we really beat them at their own game?”

“Are we really different in ways that really matter to customers, and in ways our competitor can’t or won’t copy?”

“Are we thinking weird enough?”

Strategy is a creative act.