On average, you’re out of business

Walk through most shopping malls today and much of what you’ll encounter looks pretty similar. Average products for average people. Undifferentiated sale banners screaming at us from storefront windows. Copy cat promotional signs atop virtually identical racks. A sea of sameness.

Go online and not much is different. Navigation and shopping carts across most websites feel quite familiar. Take the logo off the site and you’d be hard-pressed to identify the brand. In our quest to improve conversion and cart abandonment rates we most often choose what we know works–the “best in breed.”

Our physical and virtual mailboxes are chock-a-block with one-size-fits-all marketing messages employing tried and true, but mostly tired, techniques. And much of it touts discount, not relevance.

When we’re afraid to take risks, when we seek efficient rather than remarkable, when we mostly mimic known best practices, our tendency is to regress toward the mean. And slowly but surely, we shave off the interesting and polish the customer experience until it feels safe, but is often utterly boring.

When scarcity of choice and access existed–and brands were in control–it wasn’t terribly difficult to get away with being average.

But as the power continues to shift to the consumer, as she has an endless aisle of choices and access to almost anything imaginable 24/7, average is no longer safe. In fact, it’s precisely the opposite.

Imitation may be flattering, but in the battle for the share of attention that ultimately drives long-term success, well, not so much.

The drip method of irrelevance

At first, the shift is almost imperceptible.

With quarterly earnings expectations to hit, we tell ourselves we can easily save a few bucks by automating some of our customer service functions. Or perhaps it’s through simplifying our organizational structure or eliminating “non-essential” positions. Better yet, let’s close some “unproductive” stores.

And obviously technology enables us to take away a bit of decision-making from the front-line staff. After all, human beings are notoriously misled by their own intuition. And whoever got fired for praying to the God of Efficiency?

And running all those different marketing campaigns adds a lot of complexity. It would be much easier to boil things down to just the major stuff that we know moves the dial.

And our product line is just too diverse. Sure it’s interesting to have something fresh and innovative, but doesn’t that just increase the risk of slowing down inventory turnover and increasing markdowns? Safe is smart right?

Of course, over time, the top-line stops growing and the only way we know how to drive profits is through cost-cutting.

Over time, we’re proud of our low average talk times, yet customers can’t speak to a human being and our Net Promoter Scores continue their inexorable decline.

Over time, our one-size-fits-all marketing is, at best, indistinguishable from the competition and, at worst, a dim signal amidst all the noise.

Over time, the sad reality is that all we sell is average products for average people and there’s no reason to pick us over the guy with the lowest price.

Sears, RadioShack and a host of others that are on a long inevitable march to the retail graveyard didn’t get trumped by a disruptive competitor that emerged out of nowhere. An oppressive government didn’t regulate them out of business. They weren’t crippled by a series of specious lawsuits or hobbled by natural disasters.

Usually the brands that become irrelevant have made hundreds of seemingly small decisions, over many years, that prioritized the short-term ahead of the long-term, the numbers instead of the customer, mass rather than personal, safe not remarkable.

And once they are gone, once their fate is sealed and their previously storied histories are part of the record, we’ll look back and realize it happened gradually, then suddenly.

The problem with saying “no”

During the past 25 years Sears had at least three opportunities to transform itself by entering the home improvement warehouse business (I worked on two of them). This was probably the only way Sears was going to ultimately survive and unlock the value of its franchise Kenmore and Craftsman brands. Each time the answer was “no.”

When I headed up strategy at the Neiman Marcus Group (2004-08), we evaluated building a leadership position in omni-channel by consolidating our disparate inventory systems, we recommended moving from a channel centric marketing organization to a customer and brand focused one, we proposed aggressively expanding our off-price format and, having understood the share lost to competitors like Nordstrom, we analyzed improvements to our merchandising and service models to become a bit more accessible. Ultimately we said “no” to moving ahead on all of these. Years later, these strategies were ultimately resurrected. But the opportunity to establish and extend a leadership position may have been lost.

Obviously there are plenty of times when either the smart or moral thing to do is to say ‘no.” Obviously it’s easy to look back and say “I told you so.”

Yet systemically, most organizations are set up to reward the status quo (often cost containment and driving incremental improvement) and punish the well intended experiment. So it’s easy to say “yes” to the historically tried and true and “no” to just about everything else.

Of course we don’t have to look very hard to come up with brands that have been struggling for many, many years (Sears, JC Penney, Radio Shack) or have completely imploded (Borders, Blockbuster, etc.). All of these said “no’ to any number of potentially game-changing strategies along the way. Care to hazard a guess at how many long-term Board Members of these perennial laggards and outright losers got pushed out for saying grace over a series of crippling “no’s”? How many CEO’s had their compensation whacked for never missing an opportunity to miss an opportunity?

In a world where change is coming at us faster and faster, we need to be challenged just as much on what we are saying ‘no” to as we are on what gets a “yes.”

And If you think there is always time to fix the wrong “no” decision, you might want to think again.

You know what’s hard?

Customers say they want a more seamless experience across all channels and touch-points. “Sure” you say, “but it’s very expensive and complicated to implement that level of integration.”

Silo-ed data, systems, organizations and metrics are keeping your brand from being more customer-centric and relevant. “I know” is your response, “but greater centralization would be very jarring to our culture.”

In an increasingly noisy world, mass marketing and one-size-fits-all approaches fail to gain share of attention, becoming less effective by the day. You respond, “you’re right, but treating different customers differently is difficult to scale.”

Relentless price promotions and layering of discounts and reward points deteriorate profit margins, teach customers to only buy on sale and accelerate an inevitable race to the bottom. Your defense is to say “well that’s what moves the top line” and to point out how hard it is to justify full price.

In the inevitable battle between denial, defending the status quo and rationalization vs. acceptance, leaping and innovation, we tend to choose the former. And our fate is sealed.

Many of the things we avoid as too risky are, in fact, often just the opposite. The risk is in the failure to change, in the lack of passion to become intensely relevant, in being stuck in “me too” instead of choosing to become remarkably different.

What’s hard is to move where the customer is headed after the competition has already established a beach head.

What’s hard is to break through the clutter with undifferentiated products and tired messaging.

What’s hard is to acquire, grow and retain the right customers with average products for average people.

What’s hard is to catch up when you’ve fallen behind.

Mass or built for me?

All about price, or all about unique value?

Average or remarkable?

My guess is that every brand that’s gone through the work of closing stores, firing people and liquidating inventory might have a different view of what’s hard.

Not quite my tempo

Every individual has a pace at which they prefer to work. Of course it can vary given the circumstances. We can pick up the tempo in a crisis, or slow down when faced with uncertainty. But there is a rhythm that feels most natural to us and, often, folks that consistently work faster or slower than we do can frustrate us.

Organizations are similar. Some are constantly on the balls of their feet, poised for action, working briskly through issues, taking risks, experimenting. When a new opportunity arises, they are ready to pounce. They’re passionate–and in a hurry–to be part of the next big thing.

Others are at the other end of the spectrum. They sit back and observe. They are cautious, timid even, moving deliberately to scope the situation out. They’re more afraid to make a mistake than to fall behind. They constantly need to be pushed into making any meaningful change.

There are problems with going too fast, just as there can be issues with going too slow. This clip from Whiplash brilliantly illustrates that one challenge is knowing and accepting your tempo.

In case you haven’t notice, the pace of innovation is accelerating. Customer expectations are being transformed, seemingly overnight. Whole industries are being disrupted like never before.

Which is why it’s a good time for a tempo check.

And when in doubt, it’s probably better to rush, than drag.

Overplaying our hand

We’re told to hyper-focus on our core customers. After all, doesn’t most of our profit come from a small group of loyalists and “heavy-users”?

We’re admonished to double-down on our highest ROI marketing strategies. Surely if a moderate amount of email or direct mail or re-targeting is working, more must be even better, right?

And exhortations to find our strengths, exploit our core competencies and “stick to our knitting” are central to many best sellers and legendary Harvard Business Review articles

Lather, rinse and repeat.

And this all makes a lot of sense. Until it doesn’t.

The past few years have brought us dozens, if not hundreds, of brands that have gone away–think Blockbuster, Borders and, very shortly, Radio Shack–largely through adhering to these notions.  Still others sit on the brink of irrelevance–I’m looking at you Sears and Blackberry–because they pushed a singular way of thinking well past its expiration date and, sadly, the point of no return.

Even far stronger and far better managed brands fall into the trap of overplaying their hands. Neiman Marcus (my former employer)–along with many other luxury brands–have had to re-work their strategies because they became overly reliant on a narrow set of highly profitable customers and failed to acquire and retain other important and emerging cohorts.

It’s all too easy to become distracted by peripheral issues or to stray into areas where we have few useful capabilities. We always must be mindful of where the customer gives us–or where we can readily earn–permission to go.

But in a world that is changing ever faster, and where new competitors can often launch highly disruptive business models in short order, what got us to where we are isn’t likely to get us to where we need to be.

 

 

Oh, they’re not a competitor

Shortly after I became the head of strategy and multi-channel marketing at The Neiman Marcus Group I was asked to lead a strategic planning session for our senior executives. One of the exercises I suggested was a deep dive on our opportunities and vulnerabilities against each of our key competitors. As I reviewed my overall plan one of the top leaders responded, “I like the overall approach, but you need to take Nordstrom off your list. They’re not a competitor.”

Having come to Neiman’s after 12 years at Sears–which I affectionately call my journey from the outhouse to the penthouse–I will admit that my experience in the nuances of the luxury industry was pretty lacking at that point. I certainly understood that a substantial percentage of our customers were fabulously wealthy and preferred brands that you simply could not get at Nordstrom. But I had already learned that many of our shoppers were much less affluent and that we sold quite a few brands that overlapped. Nevertheless, being the new guy–and not especially confident in my hypotheses–I acquiesced. We didn’t talk about Nordstrom.

About a year later my team initiated an in-depth analysis of customer spending and activity trends. Ultimately what we found was pretty disturbing. While our very top spending group was growing in sales and margin rate, customers that represented about 2/3 of our sales had weakening stats.

As it turned out, virtually all our sales growth during the preceding 5 years was driven by raising our average unit prices and the growth of our e-commerce business. After much hemming and hawing about the value (and cost) of doing consumer research, we finally got approval to do a series of studies to understand the underlying drivers of these outcomes. We learned a lot, most of which Neiman’s failed to act upon until the financial crisis hit. But the overwhelming conclusion was that when we lost customers (or a portion of a customer’s spending) the majority of that leakage was to Nordstrom.

Oops.

The point of this story is not to point out the limitations of the Neiman’s culture at that time, nor the power of my intuition. The fact is you don’t have to do much digging to find similar examples of mis-reading the consumer and failing to respond adequately playing out, over and over again, in any and all parts of industry.

Sometimes competition is rather direct even when there is a major value proposition innovation. Flash-sale sites clearly competed for a certain segment of the fashion business. Digital books and music obviously challenged the underlying business models of Borders and Blockbuster.

Sometimes competition might be less direct and its game-changing impact may be harder to glean at first. I’m not sure what the brand management teams at Folger’s and Maxwell House were thinking during the initial growth of Starbucks, but it’s now clear that there was a dramatic consumer preference shift that those brands failed to address–and a huge value creation opportunity that they didn’t participate in.

Even harder to see is when consumers have a more macro-substitution effect. For example, with some consumer segments, we’ve seen a broad and long-term trend to greater interest in personal experiences. This shift has, in many cases, supplanted spending on certain physical goods.

As in most elements of good strategy development the keys are pretty simple:

  • Clearly articulate a data-supported and trackable customer segmentation scheme
  • Stay current on the wants, needs and long-term value of each of those segments
  • Monitor direct competitors and emerging competitors for EACH segment
  • Model impact scenarios for nascent opportunities and threats
  • Develop potential responses and testing plans under each of those scenarios
  • When the time is right test those responses
  • Assume the time is right much earlier than seems comfortable
  • Be prepared to compete with yourself.

And one more thing. If someone tells you “Oh, they’re not a competitor” you might not want to take their word on it.

In God we trust, all others must bring data.