“I am convinced that the only people worthy of consideration in this world are the unusual ones. For the common folks are like the leaves of a tree, and live and die unnoticed.”
L. Frank Baum, The Marvelous Land of Oz
The quote above contains an important lesson for anybody involved in creating, managing or delivering a compelling brand experience: that to be identified and remembered as exceptional, we must first embrace the necessity of being unusual. That sounds easy in theory, but it’s remarkably difficult in practice. In most situations, the ‘usual’ tends to dominate: laying out a store or a website in the ‘usual’ way makes it easier for users to find their way around without thinking too hard. Employing people with the ‘usual’ experience to fill a vacant role, and using your ‘usual’ interview approach is a sensible way to make sure employees are consistently and fairly recruited. The ‘usual’ exists for a reason: as best-practice approaches to living and working are disseminated and adopted, they become commonplace and ‘usual’. Usual can be efficient. Usual can be profitable. But usual can also be stultifying.
That’s where it helps to introduce a little bit of the unusual into proceedings.
Best practice can’t happen unless we’re prepared to step away from the comfort of the usual once in a while. That’s why so many of the retail world’s most notable innovators have embraced weirdness. Steve Jobs is an obvious case, but Peter Marino is a far better example of the power of the unusual in business. He’s one of the most celebrated and rated architects in the world of luxury retail. He’s designed flagship stores for Chanel, Armani, Barneys and Louis Vuitton. He’s received 22 citations for design excellence from the American Institute of Architects. He likes to wear leather biker gear to work. And he hates the safety of the middle ground. He expressed his disdain for the usual in a 2012 interview with the Financial Times:
“I always tell the kids who work for me, ‘Try to go around the middle: go above or below.’ People who are massively insecure want to be in the middle. It makes them feel safe. It doesn’t make me feel safe. I can’t breathe.”
So how do you inject a little ‘unusual’ into your own business in the absence of Peter Marino? And how do you get the balance right?
Kristian Brugts, Ocado’s Group Head of Brand, knows how.
When he joined Ocado in 2008, the business was an online-only supermarket working at an operating loss of £21 million on revenues a shade over £320 million. Fast-forward ten years and the organization is almost unrecognizable. In 2018, Ocado was elevated to the FTSE 100, having evolved into a grocery delivery technology business with global retail relationships from Casino in France to Kroger in the US and Sobeys in Canada. Revenues in 2017 reached over £1.3 billion with profits of £84 million. The business now employs around 12,000 people. When you’re growing so fast, ‘business as usual’ doesn’t really apply. When we interviewed him last year, Brugts mentioned that Ocado used to be described as a group of ‘enthusiastic amateurs’. The label seems to be 50 per cent insult and 50 per cent badge of honor. In response, the leadership team at Ocado has very consciously recruited a combination of ‘pirates’ and professionals’:
“Size aside, very little has changed. The mentality is still there. That entrepreneurial pirate spirit is still there with the people at a very senior level. We used to be described as being enthusiastic amateurs. That has gone away a little bit as we’ve back-filled with – and I hate to say it – professional people. Trying to get it across to them that we still have an entrepreneurial spirit, without frightening them or putting them off, is a challenge. You have to have the right people innovating. So, you have to be able to say, ‘That group of people, free rein, go away, innovate, free think, do whatever you need to do.’ If one thing comes out of there that moves the food company forwards, then fantastic. Everybody else needs to be making sure that the operation is running OK. So, you get that weird dichotomy. You’ve got crazy people here, and very regimented people over there.”
And managing the dichotomy of pirates and professionals is at the core of what makes Ocado capable of growing at such a staggering pace. It’s how any organization can balance innovation with reliability. The trick is to avoid the temptation to iron out the weirdness, or to correct for all the flaws that unusual people bring – they inevitably introduce a level of chaos, confusion and even conflict. Kristian Brugts certainly isn’t interested in ironing out Ocado’s flaws:
“We could iron them out, but that would be boring. Why would we do that? They have given us the mentality we have. You can make the case for being a little bit more polished, but our foibles have made us what we are. We would not be who we are without them. If they don’t bankrupt our business, they’re a positive flaw.”
By its own admission, Ocado is a weird place. It’s got a weird name, and it employs some weird people. But it’s the weirdness that makes Ocado special. Many organizations don’t want – or need – the same level of weirdness, but every business would benefit from consciously managing its ratio of pirates to professionals.