LinkedIn: Dull by Design

June 23, 2008


The way to build a powerful brand is not by emulating the leader and trying to be better. History proves time and again that the best strategy for going against the leader is to do the opposite.


Since the rise of MySpace we have seen hundreds of copycat social networking sites popup. They all target the same juicy younger demographic. A better idea is do the opposite. If MySpace is for younger, cool kids; make your brand for older, geeky adults. That is exactly what LinkedIn did.


But first let’s look back to see how the social network category started. MySpace got into the mind first by focusing on music. MySpace was the perfect place for independent artists to share music and for fans to congregate. It has been reported that 8 million artists have been discovered by MySpace. Young people with endless hours to waste decorating their MySpace pages made the site the place for online socializing.


The initial focus on music was the difference between MySpace and a host of other brands like Friendster, Multiply and others that were also vying to be the first social-networking site in the mind. Music gave people a reason to choose MySpace over the others.


At the beginning of any new category there are usually many players. It is like conception. After sex, you have millions of sperm racing to get to that egg to fertilize it. Some are too early, some are bad swimmers, some get lost, and some are lazy. Only one lucky and smart sperm makes it and bam the race is over. The winner is chosen; fertilization is complete. No more winners.


The same thing happens in branding. The sex is the exciting new technology, idea or service. The sperm are the initial companies that want to build a brand. The egg is the consumer’s mind. Conception occurs when one company comes up with the right strategy and the right name at the right time.


Eight years ago, Creative Technology was the first to launch a hard-drive MP3 player, the Creative Nomad Jukebox. Creative got onto the market first but never go into the mind. Today, of course, Creative is nowhere and Apple’s iPod dominates the market and is seen as the originator of the category.


Why did iPod win? iPod won because it had the better name and a focused product line and strategy. Creative made everything: flash-memory MP3 players, hard-drive MP3 players, speakers and a whole host of other electronic products. Apple’s iPod focused on the hard-drive MP3 player and hammered home the idea that it held over 1,000 songs. The iPod got into the mind first and the rest is history.


History is actually filled of stories like this. To succeed, brands don’t need to be in the marketplace first; they need to get in the mind first.

  • Yuengling was the first beer on the marketplace, but Budweiser was first in the mind.
  • Duryea was the first automobile on the road, but Ford was the first car in the mind.
  • MITS Altair 8800 was the first microcomputer, but Apple was the first microcomputer in the mind.

In social networking, MySpace was first in the mind and like first-born children has been wildly successful. A recent study showed that first-born children are smarter than their siblings and more likely to become CEOs. But like in any family, there is always room for a few more kids.


The second-born brand in the mind was Facebook which was not simply a copycat of MySpace. Facebook narrowed its focus to a small and exclusive market: college students. In fact, if you weren’t a college student you weren’t allowed to be a Facebook member.


Good things happen when you narrow the focus. For one thing, a narrow focus gives you an opportunity to use a unique and distinctive name. Facebook is the word used to describe the handout given to most college freshman when they arrive at orientation.


New students are given a book filled with all the photos, names, hometowns and majors of the entering class. The analogy was the perfect way to describe the site and what it was meant for. Plus Facebook’s clean and simple design distinguished it from the cluttered look of MySpace. The opposite of any strategy usually works quite well.


Today, of course, Facebook is open to everybody. But not starting that way was a wise move. It is like exclusive distribution which is also very effective in establishing a brand. (Exclusive distribution gives a retailer a reason to stock and promote a brand.)


Now we have the third child, LinkedIn, who is growing up fast as younger siblings always seem to do. But LinkedIn is not your teenager’s social networking site. It is just the opposite. It is intentionally dull and boring with no video and just a few photos.


In terms of a brand with profit potential, I think LinkedIn has the best chance for success. It may not be sexy but it serves a function and appeals to a broad and distinctive market with deep pockets and who are not fickle in changing brands like teens.


LinkedIn is the first professional social networking site for businesspeople. The private company just raised an additional $53 million in capital which currently values the company at $1 billion. More valuable than MySpace which News Corporation paid $580 in 2005 but less than the $15 billion value assigned to Facebook last year.


More important than its current valuation is the fact that the LinkedIn brand is solid because it was built on solid branding principles. LinkedIn did the opposite. It’s a social network for the serious, professional white-collar worker who wants to get ahead by staying in touch. Getting a job usually comes down to who you know not always what you know.


In terms of size, both MySpace and Facebook are huge. Each has 115 million users worldwide, while LinkedIn has only 23 million. But in the end, LinkedIn could represent a much larger and far more lucrative market than the pimple-popping teens at MySpace and Facebook. These two sites attract younger people who have little money and move on to the next big thing much more quickly than us older folks.


There’s a big reason why everyone over 30 should be on LinkedIn instead of MySpace or Facebook. Using Facebook at work is likely to get you fired. Using LinkedIn could land you in the corner office. It’s the revenge of the nerds at its finest.




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