Why You Should Break the Rules of Your Business


Originally published in INC. Magazine on June 11, 2013

Don’t let the way you usually do things become the way you always do things. Here’s why it pays to break the rules once in a while.

I’m not afraid to admit that I love data. But most of the data we collect is a rear-view mirror of our businesses — telling us what’s been done already, not what’s possible going forward. And as marketers constantly looking to put lessons into tidy boxes to make sense of a complex universe, far too often these historical data points can harden into “the rules” of how a business, consumer, market or category works. And that’s unfortunate, because you know what they say about conventional wisdom: it’s often neither conventional nor wise.

So take a step back and ask yourself: What are the rules in your business universe? Is there an established “way of doing things” that must be followed based on a shared understanding of “the way things work” — internally, externally or both? Are there fundamental premises that have led to a narrow and/or inflexible approach to innovation? How do you define the best practices in your category related to how you market — from contact points to messages to seasonality to, well, you get the picture…and which of these have hardened into “rules” without sufficient evidence?

Taking time to truly define the rules can be a wildly effective way to identify potential opportunities. Look at your competitors and find the themes you all share in your approach. Study consumers and define what they expect from every point of contact with your brand. And then push on these standards in pursuit of fertile ground, those spaces where consumer excitement meets business opportunity.

By way of example, a mobile phone retail client of ours was struggling to effectively break through the clutter during the fourth quarter retail season, being heavily outspent by category leaders. The “rules” told us that after the holidays, the category got very sleepy, with consumers reticent to make any purchases — after all, our “rear-view” market intelligence showed very low historical first-quarter advertising investment and sales for the entire category.

But we challenged this rule — wasn’t it possible that there was a consumer market in the first quarter? Further, what would it look like to be the only brand attacking this market during a new time period — versus getting lost in the haze of holiday retail madness?

After much analysis, we decided it was a gamble worth taking. The payoff? A campaign that generated the most successful customer acquisition effort in company history, both in terms of unit volume and cost per acquisition.

Just to be clear, breaking the rules isn’t innately virtuous — there needs to be a clearly defined strategic purpose for swimming against the proverbial stream. But the rewards to standing out from the crowd can be significant, especially when you’re chasing an insight and driving with determination.

Furthermore, it’s worth noting that in order to break the rules, you need a culture where trial and failure are accepted — with the understanding that you may be wrong more often than you are right. But remember, when you hit the jackpot, it’s often a payoff that makes the failures seem like a steal for twice the price.

As marketers, we often lean on budgets and best practices as the most reliable tools in our war chest. But it’s been our experience that healthy skepticism, fresh thinking, and a desire to explore new frontiers can often yield much bigger short- and long-term wins for the business and brand alike.

So ask yourself…what are your “rules”? And which ones might be worth breaking?