Coke vs. Pepsi. It’s the perennial brand war and the ultimate taste test. While most of us would admit we have a preference, most would also readily admit that the two thirst quenchers are more similar than different.

Like a Xerox has become a copier, a Jacuzzi a hot tub, and a Post-it a contact management system (well, maybe that one’s just me), Coke and Pepsi have become words synonymous with any old cola. Ask for one, and half the time you will get the other. And even if you can detect a slight difference, chances are that you won’t decline the beverage entirely. It’s close enough.

We talk a lot about brand differentiation in our industry. The National Association of Realtors likes to trumpet the distinction that comes with being a Realtor, but even Realtor members will admit that, to the customer, all flying discs are Frisbees and all licensees are Realtors. Similarly, as licensees, we are constantly battling to stand out, but to the guys who matter we all kind of taste the same.

Therein lies the problem. Our livelihood is dependent on standing out in a crowd, and a very big crowd it is. Being close enough isn’t good enough. This poses more than a few marketing challenges.

The problem I see too often is that agents tend to get caught up only in what all the other agents are doing, their goals laid out like a photo album of their competitors, with their objectives only to be the same but a little better. Coke vs. Pepsi. It’s a trap I wander into from time to time, in those moments of weakness, when I forget where I left my budget and my business plan.

What if you stood alone?

I don’t watch a lot of television; at my age, prime time is synonymous with bedtime. I do, however, make an exception for "Lost." I could just as easily make an exception for "The Real Housewives of New Jersey," but the reality shows are so numerous and, save the names, so similar, it’s hard to pick. (That, and I still have a functioning frontal lobe, but I digress.)

Like it or not, "Lost" is different. The producers didn’t try to create a better sequel to something else. What they did instead was create something original. They started with a new idea and developed the story over time. Fans of the show now suspect that they made much of it up as they went along — that’s what true entrepreneurs do — but at least no one confuses them with all of the other shows.

"Everybody Loves Raymond Bigger" might have been an obvious pitch to the networks, but another show about a dysfunctional family is not enough to have me rescheduling outpatient surgery around the season finale or talking to my friends insufferably about last week’s episode until they feign death or threaten to find a new friend. "Lost" fans are that passionate.

Like soda drinkers and television viewers, our customers are a finite audience. Despite the attempts of our member organizations and our government to influence demand, people will buy and sell homes when they have the need or desire to buy and sell.

So, ours is necessarily a competitive business. We compete for a limited supply of business every day, and each morning we awaken in the ranks of the unemployed. A dangerous side effect is fear — fear of insolvency or simply fear of failure.

"Bad behavior and irrational decisions are almost always caused by fear. If you want to change the behavior, address the fear."

I stole (or rather, borrowed) that line from Seth Godin, and I believe it so aptly describes the mood in our world and our industry lately: fear. We see bad behavior in the combative attitude among agents competing for limited market share, agents attempting to distinguish themselves by denigrating their competition.

I’ve heard the stories, and I have personally been on the receiving end of the campaign. "Agent X has a bitter aftertaste" is an emotional response to fear, and while it may strike a chord with some, it’s polarizing. It’s better to promote the benefits of your own product. Most people don’t respond well to negative campaigns. Ask the surgeon general.

Fear also breeds irrationality. It is reflected in the way agents tend to react to a more difficult market by thinking only in terms of ousting their competition. The marketing becomes a personal game of one-upsmanship.

Instead of thinking in terms of latent demand and attempting to fill a previously unfulfilled customer want or need, they set about trying to just be Coke, mistakenly believing that by being just as good as, or just a little better than, the competition they can differentiate. But, a soft drink is just a soft drink, after all. …CONTINUED

For every 1,000 words, I have one story. This week, it was that familiar feeling that I have painted a big old target on my back. Watching our marketing activities being emulated is nothing new nor is it a bad thing; my best ideas over the years I unashamedly commandeered from others, and competition of this nature is healthy, breeding growth and betterment.

I have a good website, and you take it and make it better, inspiring me to raise the bar yet again. You implement something innovative, and next week I have done the same with a new twist of lemon. That is what makes the world go ’round.

Except this week I felt myself getting caught up in the soda wars, forgetting for a moment about professional goals, objectives and what got me here — forgetting that it is not about competing against other agents but about besting only myself. For a moment, I felt fear, and we do funny things when we lose focus.

This race we are all running doesn’t have a finish line, and there is no one else in our heat. Of course, we must continue to look over our shoulders and ahead, because that’s what keeps us in the race; if I see a guy running faster in his Nikes, it would be smart for me to "just do it" and grab my own pair.

But eventually we are all wearing the same sneakers again, and we are back to facing our own, unique value propositions — or lack thereof.

So, what if we did stand alone? By this, I don’t mean, "Wouldn’t it be great if I was the only agent on the planet?" (There are weeks, though, that I find the concept does have some appeal.)

Rather, wouldn’t our professional life be a lot less fearful and a lot more full of potential if we made our business decisions with less regard for what everyone else was up to? Wouldn’t we be more likely to attain that elusive "household word" status by being something truly distinctive, not just good enough?

Being only concerned with our competitor’s product tends to thwart independent thinking and creativity; true distinction requires those things.

I recently saw a picture of Lady Gaga in a magazine. If you don’t know who Lady Gaga is, go borrow a teenager. Or you can have one of mine. (My oldest daughter calls her "our generation’s Madonna," and by this I am pretty sure she means her generation, since I could go head-to-head with Madonna in a game of AARP cards.)

In any event, in the photo Lady Gaga was walking through an airport, which is not terribly remarkable — unless you consider the two Diet Coke cans she was wearing in her hair at the time.

Now, I am not suggesting we all go stick our up-dos in a cooler of soft drinks, but the idea of throwing out the conventional wisdom and thinking outside of the 12-pack seems enlightened. If there is any doubt, consider that there are tens of thousands of indistinguishable garage bands right now wishing they had access to a recycling bin and Lady Gaga’s tax bracket.

More to point, I will venture a guess that most of us want to do more than keep up. So shouldn’t we approach our product — our services — and the way we market that product with a fresh approach?

For me, that means resisting the temptation to be overly concerned with what every other agent in my market is up to. Making the status quo my benchmark or aspiring only to be "just as good but a little better" is a fear-based approach.

While it may result in decent product placement for now, mediocrity is rarely the "choice of a new generation."

Kris Berg is broker-owner of San Diego Castles Realty. She also writes a consumer-focused real estate blog, The San Diego Home Blog.


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