But first you have to believe

I’m all for market studies. And consumer research. And fact-based analysis. I’ve rarely met a 2 x 2 matrix I didn’t like.

I’m all for laying out reasonable hypotheses and putting together a sound testing plan. If I’m honest, I’m pretty solidly in the  “in God we trust, all others must bring data” camp.

But for me there’s no getting around this pesky little slice of reality. More times than not, the truly innovative, the remarkable, the profoundly game-changing, emerges not from an abundance of analysis and left-brain thinking, but from an intuitive commitment to a bold new idea.

More than a decade ago the folks at Nordstrom didn’t have an iron-clad, ROI supported business case when they made the big leap into investing behind channel integration. They believed that putting the customer at the center of what you do is ultimately going to work out.

Steve Jobs eschewed logic and conventional wisdom to pursue Apple’s strategy of “insanely great” products. He believed that leading with design and focusing on ease of use creates breakthrough innovation and customer utility.

Just about every successful entrepreneur adopts a strong and abiding belief in her product or service in the face of facts and history that suggest that, at best, they are wasting their time and money and, at worst, they are simply nuts.

On the other side–with clients and in organizations where I’ve been a leader–a lack of belief that getting closer to the customer is generally a good idea or that it’s okay to fail has resulted in an unwillingness to invest in innovation. Any meaningful action was predicated on a tight business case and, when that was lacking, it was easier to do nothing than to take a chance. All these brands are now struggling to catch up.

Obviously commitment to a belief is not, in and of itself, sufficient. Execution always matters. And there are certainly plenty of strongly held beliefs that are wildly misguided or morally reprehensible.

Yet, when I embrace the notion that just about every great idea starts with a belief not a compelling set of facts–or that often some people see things way before my logical brain can-the field of possibilities expands.

And I believe that sounds like a pretty good thing.

 

 

The discount ring

I’m amazed that Wall Street analysts are “surprised” that as hot brands get bigger (think Michael Kors, kate spade), their level of discounting increases. Apparently they were all sleeping during their first year economics course when supply and demand was covered.

Target_market_bullseye

 

 

 

 

 

Whether it’s Walmart or Chanel, at the center of any brand’s customer bullseye will be customers who don’t need a discount (or any extra incentive) to buy. This is what I referred to in my recent obsessive core post. As we move out in the rings, away from the center, we encounter customer segments that are less and less intrinsically loyal and thus more in need of extra incentives to buy.

Since Walmart’s value proposition is largely about price–whereas Chanel’s rests on a high percentage of full-price selling–the composition and dynamics of these various customer segment rings will obviously be quite different. But the fact remains that as a brand grows by casting a wider net for customers it will, at some point, develop a discount ring.

As the name implies, customers in the discount ring don’t buy unless they get a deal. In fact, most brands will have multiple discount rings. There will be a ring that needs only minor or modest incentives to pull the trigger. Others only come off the sidelines when prices hit a much deeper level of markdown (or some other incentive).

Unless we are examining a brand that has decided strategically to shun price discounting completely–or assessing certain companies early in their life-cycle–the existence (and relative growth) of a discount ring should surprise no decent analyst.

The real question for anyone trying to understand the validity of a brand’s long-term customer growth strategy is whether the company has a firm grasp of the dynamics within each of these rings and is intelligently balancing the portfolio of these different customer segments.

Coach is a brand that in recent years lost its grip on its customer portfolio and pushed too far on the discount ring. They have paid a steep price and are now trying to rebalance.

In Michael Kors’ case, there are only so many customers willing to pay at or close to full-price for their core offering. Sustaining growth means appealing to more customers. And that means they will need to become more reliant on more price sensitive customers.

Ultimately the point at which the discount ring becomes meaningful is mostly a matter of brand maturity and math. If you get shocked by that it just means you’re not paying attention.

The starting point–the pivotal matter of strategy and intelligent customer development–is to build a level of deep insight about each relevant customer segment. Then we must become intentional about how each plays into the brand’s long-term growth. Having a discount ring emerge is not automatically a matter of good or bad. How it plays out over time is a strategic choice.

Choose wisely.

Might happen, will happen, has happened

In a classic Rowan Atkinson and Richard Curtis routine, Rowan asks “what is the secret to great comedy?” But before Richard can offer his reply, Rowan interrupts. “Timing” he blurts out.

Timing is, of course, essential to great strategy as well. Commit too early, and we risk over-investing or distracting ourselves from something more urgent and important. Commit too late, and we might miss a new opportunity entirely or end up falling woefully behind.

Understanding when to act at all, much less knowing when to act decisively, has everything to do with developing keen awareness of relevant factors and acceptance of their implications. Here is where most get it wrong.

Because most brands fail to invest sufficiently in developing actionable market and consumer insight, their ability to discern between “might happen”, “will happen” and “has happened” is woefully lacking.

Because most organizations do not have sufficient commitment to experimentation, they aren’t ready to act boldly when “might happen” becomes “will happen”.

Because most companies spend more time defending the status quo rather than embracing the future, they are often stuck in the past and miss “has happened” entirely.

Many important dynamics have–or are about to–change your customers and your business. Whether you realize it or not, is one thing.

And whether you are prepared to act on that realization is ultimately the difference between winning and wondering what the heck just happened?

 

Timid transformation

Funny how many companies speak of the fundamental shifts affecting their industries but haven’t gotten around to changing much about they way they go to market.

And isn’t it peculiar how most brands talk about putting the customer at the center of everything they do yet–with few exceptions–they are still organized by channel and cling to a heavy reliance on mass marketing techniques?

As disruptive new business models emerge and gobble up market share in just about every sector of our economy, you would think that more industry incumbents would be motivated to change and to change profoundly. Alas, mostly we get rhetoric, empty promises and tepid experiments.

The transformative forces shaping consumer behavior–the connection economy, all things digital and so on–fray traditional loyalties, make many historically strong business models obsolete and only serve to accelerate the shift in power away from brands toward the customer.

So you would think that companies would realize the need to change as fast as their consumers. But evidence suggests that this rarely happens.

It’s far from obvious that timid transformations work.  So why then is that the path you’ve chosen?

 

 

 

Your baby is ugly

If you are anything like me, you find it pretty easy to sit on the outside and pronounce judgment on others’ foibles, follies and plain old dumb ideas. If you are anything like me, it’s also easy to be oblivious to our own misadventures in the same or similar realms.

I’ve worked on growth and innovation strategies for most of my career. On occasion we did not make the progress we wanted because we were short on ideas and inspiration. Much of the time, however, it was because someone in a position of authority was holding on to something they had birthed and they weren’t willing to let it go. If I’m honest, sometimes that person was me.

When we put our heart and soul into something it is often difficult to see it objectively. When our ego becomes attached to that concept’s success–when the strategy and our sense of self begin to meld–than we often find ourselves in a bad place.

I worked with a well-known brand whose CEO was credited with crafting and executing a strategy that was wildly successful. Financial results were excellent and the company had substantially distanced itself from its nearest competitor. Unfortunately the evidence was mounting that not only was the strategy losing steam, but major pockets of weakness were emerging, creating considerable vulnerabilities should there be an economic downturn. Subsequent analysis and consumer research revealed the scary truth.

Those of us who were growing increasingly alarmed made numerous presentations to try to persuade the CEO to see our version of reality and convince him to take action. For the most part, we failed.

We failed not because our analysis was flawed or that our logic was shaky or that we didn’t have some kick-ass PowerPoint slides. The simple fact was we were telling him his baby was ugly and he was way too identified with the strategy to see that he had over played his hand.

I’m a firm believer in data, analysis and logic. I’ve had a fair amount of success being pretty darn good at persuading people to move outside their comfort zones. I like to believe that when presented with the facts I’m open to changing my mind.

But sometimes our baby is ugly. Until we are ready to let go of our ego–to being attached to the idea that our worth and our idea are intrinsically linked–chances are that all the forceful arguments and clever PowerPoint decks are merely annoyances.

 

 

Shrinking to prosperity: The store closing delusion

Yesterday Radio Shack announced it’s closing 1,100 stores, nearly 20% of their total. Earlier this year, JC Penney took the axe to 33 units, amidst a rising call of analysts pushing for more aggressive real estate pruning. Sears has closed some 300 units across the last 3 years, including recent decisions to shutter its downtown Chicago and Seattle “flagships.”

For those pushing a shrinking to prosperity agenda, the rationale is that eliminating the weakest units in the portfolio improves overall productivity. Well, yes, that’s just math. Unfortunately you don’t make money on ratios.

They also claim that with the growth in e-commerce fewer stores are needed. While there is an element of truth to this, it ignores the vital inter-relationship between physical stores and digital channels. For the vast majority of multi-channel retailers the web drives store traffic and stores drive e-commerce. Close stores and you hurt your e-commerce business because your brand become less accessible, and therefore less relevant.

Now don’t get me wrong. If a company is hemorrhaging cash and the data show that a given location cannot be made cash positive quickly (including the effect on the digital business, net of closing costs), it needs to go. Marginal economics 101. And certainly with shifting populations, rapidly evolving consumer behaviors and changes in real estate conditions, there is always going to be a steady stream of real estate rationalization.

Yet the heart of the matter for all the retailers at the center of the store closing debate is this: their value proposition is not working. Unless you shift your business model to becoming more destination driven–or somehow more regionally focused–closing a bunch of stores is likely to make things worse in the aggregate. You lose economies of scale and scope. You become less convenient to your target consumers. Your brand visibility declines.

Brick and mortar retail is not dying. But it certainly is becoming different. Yet it’s not hard to find many examples of winning brands that continue to open plenty of stores (e.g. Walgreen’s, Michael Kors). In fact, in the face of all this talk about mass store closings, formerly e-commerce only players like Warby Parker and Bonobo’s are now opening physical locations. I guess they must be really stupid.

I cannot recall a single retailer that engaged in large-scale store closings in the last decade that is thriving today. Actually every one I can think of is either gone or gasping for breath.

For Radio Shack and Sears, the hacking of their store count signals that they don’t have a viable strategy to survive and that their store closings are more rooted in desperation and the desire to keep the wolf from their door. For Penney’s, if they are able to craft (and execute) a value proposition that fights and wins in the middle market–no easy task–chances are they can support more stores, not fewer. If they announce plans to cut more than 10% of their units, it’s likely the beginning of their slide into oblivion, not a sensible bit of financial engineering.

 

 

 

My Top Ten Blog Posts of 2013

As I take a break until the end of the year, here’s a recap of my top 2013 blog posts, in order of popularity.

1.   Neiman Marcus & Target: A glorious failure.

2.   JC Penney: Trouble on the home front.

3.   Math is hard, for JC Penney.

4.   Sears: The world’s slowest liquidation sale.

5.   JC Penney: Gloat edition.

6.   The multi-channel customer is your best customer. Duh.

7.   No pottery, no barn, no crates, no barrels.

8.   The world’s first omni-channel executive.

9.   Blaming the hole.

10. Silos belong on farms (redux). 

On a special note, my most viewed post of the year was actually from 2010. Fail better got a huge boost from being featured in Seth Godin’s Krypton course. Thanks Seth!

Thanks as well to everyone for reading my blog, challenging it, promoting it and just simply paying attention to my ramblings. It means a lot.

May you and those closest to you enjoy a wonderful holiday season.  Namaste.