There are a few places in life where instinct kicks in and you just know how to act. No one told you. There were no written warnings.
You just learned somehow: There’s one area of incredibly sacred unwritten rules.
When you walk into a men’s restroom, there is usually a wall of urinals—anywhere from three to 40, depending on whether the restroom is in a coffee shop or a football stadium.
The number of urinals doesn’t really matter, though. Guy code stipulates that we use every other one until each odd-numbered urinal is occupied.
You never use the one nearest the door.
The farthest urinal is preferred—especially if it is bordered by a wall.
No one told me these rules. Every guy reading this is nodding. Every woman is rolling her eyes. (But don’t worry—I’ll keep the secret of the lounge areas you ladies enjoy).
When I walk into a restroom with a close friend, even mid-conversation, and no other urinal is in use, we leave a one-urinal space between us. It’s just the way things are done. Once each odd-numbered urinal is occupied, the in-between spaces will begin to fill up. We consider even-numbered urinals the way event planners would think about overflow seating.
Why do we do this? There is no rule stating, “Please use every other urinal until capacity is reached,” hanging in the restroom.
Doing anything else would just make us guys uncomfortable.
It’s an unwritten rule.
We follow conventions. We call these conventions “the norm,” reinforcing the notion that they are the normal way to do things.
They are the way everyone else does things. The norm is preferred because we are scared to stand out too much.
Malcolm Gladwell popularized the unlikely story of Vivek Ranadivé, a businessman turned girls’ basketball coach turned NBA team owner, in a 2009 New Yorker article and later in his book David and Goliath.
Ranadivé coached his 12-year-old daughter’s National Junior Basketball team—a team of unlikely and overmatched athletes—to the national championship by running a full-court press all game, every game.
Very few basketball teams run the full-court press defense, and when they do, they rarely do it for more than a few minutes of each game.
Why? There is no rule against the full-court press, it’s just an unwritten rule that most teams retreat to their own end of the floor to set up their half-court defense instead of immediately launching into a fast-paced defensive strategy.
Similarly, you never see two quarterbacks in football. I’ve often extolled the virtues of establishing a two-quarterback system. The defense would never know who was getting the ball, whether it would be thrown, handed off or tucked and run. With even mid-range size and skill in both QBs, that team would be unstoppable. It would certainly spread the defense in an unprecedented and uncomfortable manner.
The provocateur who tried this system would probably win a lot of games the first season—until someone figured it out.
You don’t see this because Nick Saban would complain about it during postgame interviews. Football analysts and coaches would call it unfair, unorthodox and unsportsmanlike.
Well, I always say, “Call me anything you want, just don’t call me late for dinner.”
The Golden State Warriors defied the NBA’s unwritten rules of using two perimeter shooters, two big men and a go-between. They traded their go-between and one of their big men for a new look—a look that would give them four post-up shooters. Analysts said a “jump-shooting team” wouldn’t do well, but they were wrong.
Will the strategy work forever? The Cleveland Cavaliers figured out how to stop the Warriors, but the system is still pretty successful.
As business owners, we are conditioned to follow the unwritten rules so as to not stand out. Our marketing efforts often suffer from the same problems. After all, failure is almost ensured. The ethereal “they” say that 80 percent of small businesses fail. For some reason, like so many lemmings, we follow the beaten path right off the cliff.
If you want to succeed, you can’t be afraid to stand out.
Working with medical practices is difficult because of the many written and unwritten rules in advertising. Years ago, I worked with a few dentists in town who wanted to grow their patient base but were afraid to advertise.
“No one advertises dentistry around here,” they said. “It’s just not something you’re supposed to do.”
“Why not?” I pushed.
“It’s frowned upon. No one does it.”
The customers weren’t the ones doing the frowning. It was other dentists.
Finally, I convinced my clients that other dentists weren’t the ones paying their bills—their patients were. They began to tastefully advertise their areas of expertise, and their practices grew. Fast-forward a few years, and half the dentists in town are running some sort of marketing campaign. My clients broke the unwritten rules, and they succeeded.
A welcome side effect is that I see a lot more smiling faces around here. The patients who had neglected their dental health have found dentists they trust and are sporting more confident smiles.
Similarly, a client who works with breast cancer patients was recently scheduling a campaign for the next year. When we came to October, breast cancer awareness month, the client said, “Let’s advertise something different than breast cancer this month. Everyone else will be doing it, so it will feel disingenuous and we won’t stand out. Besides, we advertise it year round.”
I could have cried tears of joy. This client understood.
Successful marketing is most often about doing what your competition isn’t. When they’re blue, you’re red. When they’re on billboards, you’re online. When they’re maintaining radio silence, you’re filling the airwaves.
Stop following unwritten rules if you want to stand out. Blaze your own trail, and your customers will be right behind you.