competitive advantage

can I get a little hate?

I’m fascinated by branding. Not the marking-cows-so-the-don’t-get-rustled kind. The kind of branding that’s about identity and messaging and clear authenticity. How clear? If No One Hates You, No One is Paying Attention. That statement is the title of a great piece by Alf Rehn (@alfrehn), and gets at the heart of branding. Alf reminds us that trying to be all things to all people doesn’t work, despite the legions of businesses that attempt it. It makes sense to know and declare who you are as a business and what you stand for. But the ugly, unmentioned downside is that in doing so you are also declaring who you aren’t and who you stand against.

So truly strong branding is only telling people “Our products are for you. You will like them. You will like what being associated with them says about you. You should buy them.” But it’s also taking that stand to say “Our products are not for you. You won’t like them. You won’t like what being associated with them says about you. You shouldn’t buy them.”

As an example Alf mentions the Cadillac “Poolside” ad. I hadn’t seen it, but it apparently launched in the spring to much criticism. Take a look:

Critics said it missed the mark, because it was obnoxious, reinforced negative stereotypes about Americans, and didn’t appeal to most buyers. Which was the point. They took a bold stand in defining who their target customers were and who they weren’t. It also got people talking and passionately arguing about Cadillac and what the ad represented. And it presented their electric cars a cool status symbol for people who would typically abhor electric cars as being for “tree hugging ecomentalists”.

Ford took advantage of the Cadillac’s self-induced negative press to parody it with an ad targeting a completely different group of buyers. Think young urban activist vs middle aged Wall Streeter. It’s a brilliant parody, nailing scene after scene and positioning buying the Ford as almost an act of protest against everything the Cadillac buyer stands for. It’s a pretty good jab, but not quite as much of a statement simply because the Ford has a bigger target market and the ad doesn’t have the same level of potential for starting internet flame wars.  See it here:

Not as bold as it seems

These ads actually highlight how low the bar for a definitive brand is set. That the ads appear buzzworthy is incredibly telling. This isn’t edgy – it’s actually very safe because it’s just acknowledging and reinforcing their long established brand images. The people who liked it were already on board and those who got irritated never going to be customers anyway. All the marketers have done is acknowledge and play off of what was already there.

Middle-age folks with some bucks treating themselves with a luxury car because “they’ve earned it”? Not quite a shocker. Twenty-somethings buying a small economy car? Well, few among that market could afford the luxury brand even if they did want it. Safe. Safe. Amusing. But safe.

Why are we so concerned with clearly defining our brands? Why are we so worried we might offend a potential customer when those who might be put off by the brand were never going to buy from us anyway? Why do we so rarely define both our target market and our anti-market? Our brand and our anti-brand? (A fun question for my HR friends: What’s the brand and anti-brand for your HR department? If you can’t answer that you might want to start asking around because it exists whether you’ve defined it or not.)

Bolder branding?

You know how difficult it is to shake the reputation you establish in the first few weeks on a job? Branding is the same. The brand image can boost or haunt you for years to come. So one of the biggest challenges is changing a brand by creating a new and different identity. The risk is that you’ll offend and lose the existing demographic while not convincing anyone of the new brand. Some retailers, such as JcPenney have been giving a master class in how not to change your brand for the past couple of years.

We started off with cars, so let’s continue there. Jaguar has been one of the most interesting rebrands to watch. They had a huge sporting heritage in the 1960s and then slowly morphed into an old man’s brand for people who liked luxury cars that tended to leak oil and break down on the way to the country club. Unfair? Tough. That’s the unfortunate power of branding. Your brand is not what you want it to be, it’s the identity and image stuck in the customer’s mind. And that can be tough to overcome.

A couple of years back they attempted to change their image with ads like this:


That’s a pretty swift kick to the crotch of the traditional buyers. Then, more recently they switched to the Good To Be Bad campaign with ads like this:

Are they good cars? Don’t know. But the branding has taken a bold, fun, tongue-in-cheek stance with a middle finger (or two fingers upraised) to the stodgy past. These are not cars for everyone. More importantly, judging by the styling and dragster-meets-F1 car sound, they are not cars for Jaguar’s traditional customer.

But they are cars for who they want their new customer to be. They have a very clear idea of who that is and isn’t.

Do you?

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flashback friday: why HR rocks

I can be quite critical of HR, but it’s only because I really like HR. I see what it can be and get frustrated when it’s not. HR on a good day contributes heavily to great business, to competitive advantage, to a workplace where people can perform at their best. HR is not why the company exists, but it enables the company to do what it does best. Good HR moves things forward; bad HR gets in the way.

I have a personal mission to help people be at their best – that’s why I’m in HR. But why should you be in HR? Why should anyone choose HR as a career? Hmmmm, good question. Some thoughts:

If you have both people and business skills you can be a superstar. HR needs people who can understand, translate, and communicate between the impersonal numbers side of business and the intensely personal human side. Even the coldest, sterilest, most numbers driven work gets done through humans with all their squishy, emotional, irrationality. Understand and communicate to both and you’re a hero.

Influence the entire organization. HR plays a large role in developing the culture (and is also a reflection of the culture that’s been created). It’s pretty cool to help shape a company.

Know what’s going on. IF (big if) you can keep your mouth shut and keep things confidential, you will learn far more than you ever wanted to know about your co-workers and all the scandals kept on the downlow.

Get a big picture view. Even if you don’t want to stay in HR forever, a couple of years will give you a very big picture view of how the organization fits together, who does what, how information flows, and who the real power players are. That’s invaluable info for any rising leader.

Gain exposure. HR is one of the few departments that actively interacts with leaders in every other area. Even the admins in HR have more exposure to leadership than the high potentials in more isolated areas. The exposure and networking can be a huge advantage (just avoid making enemies).

Food. There is always food in HR. My six year old son told me that he wanted a job just like mine.  In moments like this I’ve learned to ask “why?” before getting all misty eyed. He said, “Because you always get to have cake.”

Party central. HR often bristles at the idea of being the ones who have to organize the company picnics and Christmas parties. Yes, if that’s all you’re being asked to do by senior leadership then you’re in a very marginal HR department. However, HR really is in position and generally has the people skills to throw great parties. What better way to reach people and influence the culture? If the HR department is already supporting competitive advantage and helping the business kick capitalist booty why not lead the charge to celebrate it? (Do you really want accounting heading up the next party?)

Helping others. Everything else aside, it’s pretty cool to be in a position to help others. People tend to come to HR when their lives are at their best and worst moments and without getting all clichéd and sappy, it is a tremendous privilege to be able to celebrate with them or help them with their transition.

HR isn’t always fun, but it’s a place I enjoy. That’s why I want it to be the field I know it can be.

[This was originally posted on December 11, 2011. It seemed like a good day to revisit it.]

 

the hidden in plain sight competitive advantage

Business is conducted through humans, by humans, for humans. Humans invent, create, produce, market, sell goods and services to other humans. Business success is determined by how well the humans at the company meet the needs of the humans who are buying compared to the other options available.

Oversimplified, but reasonable enough. If I need a new mountain bike, the bicycle company that best meets my needs for price vs quality vs value vs features vs warranty vs availability vs etc is the one that I will give money to. If there are enough people with the same needs then that business will do better than their competition. Simple enough, no?

Well, no.

How the humans who are your (internal or external) customers FEEL about your products and services is much, much more important than what they THINK. [This is the single most significant line I have written in this blog ever. Period. Think about it. Internalize it. Apply it to your job.]

Us humans are emotional, illogical, and irrational. We are pleasure seeking pain avoiders. We almost always act in what we believe is our best interest or will at least what will make us happy in the moment. We almost always act in ways that support our self-identity and often put who we think we are ahead of our long-term best interests. Us humans are individualistic and driven by group dynamics. We want to stand out by fitting in and be just as unique as everyone else. Status matters – a lot – and we put considerable effort into creating and maintaining our position in our world. We cling to ritual and tradition more than progress and reason. We fear change yet get bored easily and constantly seek new and different. In short, we are a gloriously gooey, sloppy, contradictory, confusing, paradox.

Business gets done through, by, and for humans. If that’s true, then our skills for understanding the driving psychology of ourselves and others, communicating our needs and concerns while understanding and empathizing with those of  others, and leading and influencing  others (and ourselves) are paramount to long-term success. Those ill named “soft” skills are foundational to business success, individual success, and human success, yet are some of the least appreciated, studied, or taught skills.

If we were consistently rational and logical, understanding ourselves and others would be PRIORITY #1 for every individual, community, organization, and business. It’s not. There is a competitive advantage to be found wherever there is a gap between what’s available and what’s needed.

It’s worth repeating: How the humans who are your (internal or external) customers FEEL about your products and services is much, much more important than what they THINK.

Use that information to your advantage.

 

flashback friday: the world’s still shrinking

[This was originally posted on February 14, 2012 and seemed like a fitting flashback for Black Friday.]

More and more we are playing on a global scale. Even when buying from the shop on the corner, there’s nothing to prevent that corner from being in a different state, country, or hemisphere.

With a smart phone in hand consumers can quickly and easily compare prices while in the store. Love the product, but hesitant on the price? A quick picture of the barcode will turn up the best prices available. I’ve recently been seeing concern that people will use local stores to find the perfect item, size, etc. and then order from elsewhere. This has always happened, it’s just easier than ever now.

I recently upgraded the brakes on my mountain bike. I purchased an American brand of brakes (buy American!) made in Taiwan (buy American?) from a store in the UK (wait a minute…). This was the first time I’d purchased from a store outside the country, but I believe we’ll be seeing more and more of it. There were no currency issues  –  their website showed prices in US Dollars based on the current exchange rate and the credit card works everywhere. Unlike the big box store that made it seem like a major hassle to order an out of stock laptop they were running a special on, this store made it as easy as possible to purchase. Finally, on top of a great price, they shipped for free and it only took a week to get it once it shipped.

Yes, there are downsides. It would be a pain if I had to return anything, it took a little longer to get than if I’d ordered from somewhere in the States (in fairness, the holidays probably slowed things down a bit), and I’m not supporting a local business (but then, I still wouldn’t be if I’d ordered from an internet retailer in the US).

Would I purchase from them again? Probably. I enjoy variety and having access to quality brands that are uncommon in the US. I’m amused by the idea of shopping in a foreign store. More important, they are getting it right. Even five years ago it would have been a real pain to order internationally. Today it’s as easy as any internet purchase. Where other businesses would shy away from international business – dealing with currency, taxes, shipping, and customs on top of long-distance customer service – this business decided to become the largest internet bicycle retailer. They have the volume to offer better pricing and invested in the effort to sort the customer service side of things.

This isn’t about bicycle parts, foreign stores, or my desire to be a little quirky. This is where the world is heading. Competing on price is difficult because there is always someone cheaper somewhere. For most businesses, especially local ones, the differentiator is really understanding the customers’ needs, service, follow-up, convenience, a cool vibe or good feeling, great people, extensive knowledge, problem solving focus, etc.

Your business is now competing with every other business on the planet. You probably won’t win on price (though you do need to be in the ballpark), but what makes your business stand out is simply: 1) how easy and pleasant is it to shop and purchase from you; and 2) how good are your people at solving the customer’s problems? It all comes down to processes and people. What is your business investing in?