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When Everybody Zigs, Zag

Would-be leaders in any industry must come to grips with a self-evident truth—you can’t be a leader by following. Admittedly, it’s difficult to zag when every bone in your body says zig. Human beings are social animals—our natural inclination is to go with the group.

Creativity, however, demands the opposite. It requires an unnatural act. To achieve originality we need to abandon the comforts of habit, reason, and the approval of our peers, and strike out in new directions. In the world of branding, creativity doesn’t require reinventing the wheel, but simply thinking in fresh ways. It requires looking for what industrial designer Raymond Loewy called MAYA—the Most Advanced Yet Acceptable solution. Creative professionals excel at MAYA. While market researchers describe how the world is, creative people describe how it could be. Their thinking is often so fresh that they zag even when they should zig. But without fresh thinking, there’s no chance of magic.

An effective use of the MAYA principle was the career of The Beatles. They began in the early 1960s with songs that were commonly acceptable, then raised the bar of innovation one record at a time. By the end of the decade, they had taken their audience on a wild ride from the commonplace to the sublime, and in the process created the anthems for a cultural revolution. Their formula? As one critic observed: “They never did the same thing once.”

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