The Incomparables

“Did you hear that? They compared me to Hitler!”

“Favorably, I hope.”

There is a simple way to not publish a book: just tell the publisher that there’s nothing like it on the market. If there’s nothing like it — in other words, it’s unique — then, so the logic goes, there must not be a market for it. Of course, the real problem is that they have nothing to compare the book to; it’s incomparable.

Blake Edward’s classic comedy, The Pink Panther, features the incomparable Peter Sellers as Inspector Clouseau pursuing a jewel thief. The thief is after the Pink Panther, an incomparable diamond.

“Incomparable” is a popular word in at least a few descriptions of the movie. However, at the risk of mixing metaphors, or at least movies, as Inigo Montoya says in The Princess Bride: “You keep using this word. I do not think it means what you think means.”

The problem with “incomparable” is that when it’s actually true, it doesn’t really tell us very much. Comparison is key to knowing how to value something, be that a meal at a restaurant or a product we want to buy. As Robert Cialdini points out in Influence, knowing that a bracelet costs $50 is relatively meaningless because we only have the haziest idea of what it’s actually worth. But when that same bracelet is priced at “$50, marked down from $100,” now it seems like a much better deal. The comparison tells us the value, Granted, this may be manipulated by clever marketeers, but it still works surprisingly often. For example, in his book, Predictably Irrational, Daniel Arielly describes an ad from the Economist magazine: $59 for a web only subscription, $125 for print, and $125 for print and web combined.

Does this seem odd? The same price for print and print and web? Given that, who would take the print only version? The answer, of course, was very few people; that wasn’t the point. The real point was that putting in that “fake” middle option (yes, you could have chosen it, but why?) made the combined option much more attractive. In fact, the presence of the middle option caused more people to chose the more expensive combined option rather than the web only option, whereas without the middle option more people chose the cheaper web only option. The right point of comparison makes a big difference: given an apple, we look for something else that looks like an apple to compare it to; we don’t compare the apple to an orange. Comparisons are our mental landmarks that help us figure out which way to go: we compare PCs to Macs, grocery stores to grocery stores, clothing to clothing, etc.

This means that when marketing a product, we need to be able to provide some landmarks to go with it. If we don’t provide landmarks, then one of two things happens: either the product is ignored because we’re not sure what good it is or what it is really worth; or, it gets compared to something randomly. In other words, either the blank space in the map confuses people or they take the wrong turn. Thus, it is critically important to frame the comparison properly: being compared to Hitler might make someone look good. More seriously, Dunkin Donuts sells coffee, but Starbucks sells an elegant experience which happens to include a cup of expensive coffee. As coffee goes, Starbucks is expensive; as an “experience,” maybe not so much. Similarly, many companies sell smartphones, but Apple sells a device that, if their commercials are to believed, is integral to a life enhancing experience. On the flip side, Apple is struggling to convince people that the iPad Pro is a reasonable PC replacement: the Pro is a tablet, and it’s hard to compare a tablet to a PC; our brains want to compare it to other tablets because that’s what it looks like. It’s all a question of framing the comparison; even then, the frame has to make sense.

There was nothing incomparable about Peter Sellers as Inspector Clouseau. It’s exactly because the character of a detective is so easy to grasp that his portrayal of the bumbling Clouseau was so incredibly funny… by comparison (and you are probably imagining plenty of characters to compare him to). When you’re looking at your incomparable product, just what will people compare it to?

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