Voodoo Doughnut: Getting Noticed in a Crowded Market

You probably compete in a crowded marketplace. You might have to compete with bigger companies who have more established brands. So how do you stand out? Let's take some inspiration from a shop called Voodoo Doughnut in Portland.

Voodoo is one of the most publicized doughnut stores in America--they've been featured on Leno, Letterman, Good Morning America, and others. Why are people so interested in this place? Well, check out some of their products. Here's a doughnut that's been rolled in Cocoa Puffs cereal. And here's a doughnut that makes a nutritious breakfast it's coated with maple icing and actual strips of bacon. And finally the eponymous voodoo doughnut --it comes with a pretzel stick that you can use to impale it, and when you do, the doughnut bleeds raspberry jelly.

Voodoo Doughnut

So notice what Voodoo Doughnut is doing: They're standing out by breaking a pattern. You have certain expectations of what a doughnut shop will serve, and they're deliberately violating those expectations. You will never see a bleeding doughnut at Krispy Kreme. So we pay attention.

Voodoo may seem extreme, but the strategy isn't. Start by getting a clear idea of what the pattern in your industry is. So take the rental car industry as an example. Where do you get your car? At the airport. What kind of car? Some formless thing that makes a Ford Taurus look scandalous. What kind of service? Well, they try to extort you into paying $20 a day for insurance you don't need.

So into this marketplace comes Zipcar, based in Boston. Their idea was that we can rent cars to people in big cities who don't own one. So notice the patterns they break: Where do you get your car? They sprinkle them around the city so that you can find one within a few blocks of you. What kind of cars? Ones you'd actually enjoy driving, like Mini Coopers. And the service? It all happens online, so there's no face-to-face extortion.

If you're in a crowded marketplace, you aren't going to get attention by doing something a little better than everyone else. Voodoo didn't try to serve doughnuts that were 3% tastier and 2% cheaper than everyone else. The way you get attention is by doing something nobody else is doing, or by doing one thing ferociously better than everything else.

For More On This Topic: If you're curious, check out Voodoo Doughnut and Zipcar--both businesses have managed to stand out brilliantly in crowded, mature marketplaces. My favorite book on the topic of standing out is Seth Godin's Purple Cow--it's a must-read. (Until Amazon delivers it, read the excerpt.) If you're concerned about standing out personally (as in a job interview or college essay) rather than organizationally, check out a podcast I recorded about "Making You Stick." (I know, the title is unfortunate.) You can get it free by signing up for the Resources area of the Made to Stick site.

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7 Comments

  • Kim

    You're calling a sugary, maple and bacon covered ball of  fried dough a nutritious breakfast? Wow. Just wow.

  • Stephanie Kesler

    The article missed a critical point. Voodoo Doughnuts does an outstanding job of differentiation. But, it would all be for naught, if their doughnuts weren't so good. Voodoo Doughnuts are fabulously good. So, they have that magic combo: a delicious product and a fun image that fits very well within the Portland vibe.

  • Paul Helm

    In most Business 101 courses you learn you can be successful by one of three strategies: Offer the lowest price, offer the best quality, or set yourself apart. This is a great article about thinking outside the box to set yourself apart from your competition. Another option for “outside the box” strategy, although starting to become inside the box more and more, is engaging social media. Actually talking to people, discussing your industry and your product, can set you apart from companies who just want to sell. Educate, build trust, then sell.