You Need a Nemesis

The most impactful TV commercial of all time never showed the product it promoted.

It focused on the product’s nemesis.

Steve Jobs recognized the power of identifying a nemesis, and used his legendary “1984” Super Bowl commercial to do just that. Rather than focus on the features of the new Macintosh, the commercial focused on its enemies.

Smart move.

“Because declaring an enemy of your work — whether a person, product, or idea —gets it noticed, supported, and ultimately helps it succeed.”

In its “1984” commercial, Apple made clear its nemesis was IBM and, more importantly, the bigger idea that computers only existed to serve big business and government as opposed to individuals.

With that clear enemy in mind, Apple created a spot that positioned it as a warrior going to battle against this (maybe slightly exaggerated?) enemy.

In doing so, it told the world what it stood for, how it was different, where it was headed, and rallied those who shared similar beliefs (and fears) to its cause.

“That’s how you attract passionate support for your brand. You don’t offer to be your audience’s hero, you volunteer to take down their enemy.”

As Apple demonstrated, your nemesis doesn’t have to be a person— it can be an idea, culture, process, system, company, organization, tradition, or anything that represents something you (and your target audience) believe does more harm than good.

Once you identify the nemesis of your work, it becomes easier to attract an audience, map out your next move, differentiate yourself from the competition, and become great.

Here’s why…

Your nemesis rallies your audience.

It’s easier to rally an audience against something than it is to rally them for it.

“Even people who care deeply about a product or cause are more likely to engage with and support it when it’s threatened or when it actively battles an opponent.”

People always love their country, but get more patriotic in times of war.

The ACLU and Planned Parenthood see donations skyrocket in the era of Trump.

Newspaper subscriptions rise when fake news floods our Facebook feeds.

And Red Sox fans get louder when the Yankees come to town.

When you identify and message the nemesis of your work, you’re better able to activate your audience and rally them to support you.

The more people sense you’re in combat against a shared enemy, the more likely they are to buy, support, and share your message.

Your nemesis shows you the way.

“When the opponent expands, I contract. When he contracts, I expand.” — Bruce Lee

A core principle of martial arts is to use your opponent’s energy against them.

A nemesis to your work allows you to do the same by illuminating a path you can follow to get where you want to go.

“Your work can be a reaction to the moves of your rivals. The better you know your nemesis, the more clear your path becomes.”

Instagram Stories exist because Snapchat proved stories to be a compelling way to experience social media content.

Napster exploded on to the scene as a reaction to the inflated prices of the music industry.

When you study your nemesis you discover their weaknesses create your opportunities and their strengths can teach you how to improve your weaknesses.

Your nemesis helps you stand out.

The more clearly defined your nemesis is, the more clearly defined your positioning becomes.

When people try to figure out what you do and who it’s for, having a clear sense of what you’re not can help them understand what you are.

Josh Bernoff has literally written a book about writing without bullshit. His nemesis is clearly people who try to use jargon and spin in their writing. By clearly stating what he’s against, you know what he’s for — you better understand his positioning.

Patagonia seems to care as much about the environment as it does selling clothes. By positioning itself against those who threaten the environment — even going so far as to threaten to sue the President — it has separated itself from other clothing manufacturers.

It’s one thing to make clothes for the outdoors, it’s another to fight those who threaten nature.

Your nemesis makes you better.

Having a nemesis doesn’t just help you get noticed and rally your audience — it can also make you definitively better at what you do.

“A nemesis — or at least a rival — will push you to maximize your potential and drive you to become better than you otherwise might be.”

There’s no Magic Johnson without Larry Bird. There’s no Muhammad Ali without Joe Frazier. And there would have been no 1969 moon landing without the space race between the United States and the Soviet Union.

As Jonah Berger explains in his book Invisible Influence, the best way to improve your performance is to have a competitor who’s slightly ahead of you to motivate you to do your best work.

He points to a study that shows that basketball teams who trail badly at halftime most often lose, but teams that are down by only one point at halftime tend to comeback and win.

Whether it’s on the field or off, identifying a nemesis to your work — a qualified nemesis who can truly push you — will motivate you to accomplish more than you may think is possible.

Your nemesis proves you’re doing something meaningful.

The final benefit of having a nemesis is that it’s a sign your work is meaningful — a north star to show you’re making an impact.

“To achieve true greatness, you need to generate true change — in yourself, your audience, or the world. But change always has its enemies.”

So if your work doesn’t ruffle any feathers, if nobody is made uncomfortable by it, you’re not doing enough.

“Create things for somebody, not for everybody.”

And if you discover a nemesis along the way?

Congratulations, you’re on the right track.

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