Michael Baer's Stratecution Stories

"Strategy is overrated. We have a strategic plan. It's called doing things". – Herb Kelleher

Monthly Archives: March 2014

The myth of “I prefer their early work”

I prefer their early workfact or mythearly work book

I was talking with someone I know about a band that I love. He’s into music, too – but, to be honest, he’s a bit of a musical know-it-all. He’s a “I saw the them before anyone knew them” type of guy. And after I mentioned said band, he told me the classic saw, “I prefer their early work”.

Now, I have to admit that I’ve said it myself. And I’ve probably repeated all the same, standard rationale – they put their whole lives up to that point into it their first work; they were raw-er; it was from the heart back then; it was before they were “in the business”, so it was for the art of it. Okay, I get all that. But upon further thought, it should rarely be true. Because, first of all, any good band, artist, writer, and basic human learns more as they go along. They learn about themselves, the world, their craft. Anyone worth his or her salt gets better. The more they play together, know each other better, play with and develop their sound more, they should almost certainly improve. They make mistakes, they learn from trying, they find what works best. And, over time, they come in contact with additional resources – other artists, producers, etc. – that drive further adaptation and evolution. If they don’t, then they’re probably not truly special. Right?

But the more I thought about it, I also started to think that saying “I prefer their early work” also says some not-so-nice-things about the person who is saying it. And, about the person he or she is saying it to.

It suggests “I know more than you”.  Because it usually is said in response to someone saying he or she likes something, it’s kinda like saying “I used to like them, too – but I learned additional stuff that caused me to stop liking them. I guess you haven’t learned it, yet.” Which is smug (and here’s what I feel about smugness).

It says “I’m more discerning”. This person is saying that he has made a distinction in their work – he can probe deeper and critically dissect the better (earlier) from the less good. If you like all of it, then I suppose you don’t have the faculties to make the distinction.

It suggests “I’m more of a leading edge person than you”. This person is consciously pushing beyond what’s popular or well known to find what they like (a good thing) – and is letting you know in a way to place you with the pack, the average, the non-explorers.

It says “you’re lazy for still liking them”. Similarly, this person is always looking for what’s new. And you? You’re still sticking to them, despite their clearly disappointing later work? You’re obviously are lazy.

So, after all this thought, I’ve decided that I’m not going to say “I prefer their earlier work” ever again. Perhaps what I’ll say if I really am disappointed with the path someone or something has taken after early promise is “I really like some of their work. I’m interested in seeing where they’re headed.” What do you think?

What you DON’T do is as important as what you do*

just don't do itdon't do it street signdon't do itrelax don't do it shirt

It being Academy Awards season, I thought it made sense to give the Oscar for best Marketing Effort of the year. And that would go, hands down, to CVS, for their decision to stop selling cigarettes in all their stores by October 2014. Saying that, “the sale of tobacco products is inconsistent with our purpose”, CVS is removing cigarettes and tobacco products from all its stores – representing an annual loss of $2 billion in revenue from tobacco shoppers. Yep, that’s right – I said $2 BILLION. But this simple act solidified and clarified what the company does – “help people on their path to better health”, as their President and CEO stated. It doesn’t take a genius to see how cigarettes are in conflict with that goal.

Now, I’m not aware of any Oscar (or Addy, Clio, or Cannes Lion) being given out for what a brand or agency didn’t do, but I think maybe there should be. Because often in Business and marketing, it’s just as important what you DO NOT do as what you do. There are number of reasons this is so.

Firstly, there is nothing more important than clarity. Most companies have complex, 100-page strategies that allow for all kinds of activities and lots of interpretation. That might be fine for diversification, but it’s terrible for clarity of direction, purpose or meaning for consumers. And when consumers aren’t clear what you are about or stand for, forget about being anything but a commodity. As a drug store that sold all the stuff you find at any drug store, CVS was a commodity. But CVS now firmly differentiates itself as being in the healthcare business.

Nothing makes things more clear than contrast. In fact, there’s a concept in Neuroscience called the the “Contrast Principle”, which states that we understand something better when we see it in comparison to something else than in isolation. So when a company makes it clear what they will not do, that helps us understand what they do. For example, when Yorkie said it was “not for girls”, people knew they were a manly candy bar – maybe more so than if they had said whom they were meant for.

Strategy is about making choices. Strategy should not be arcane, academic or abstract. Being strategic is all about making choices about actions – those which you do and those which you won’t or don’t. Closing one action in favor of another requires the courage of conviction and confidence to abandon things, which provides a necessary focus internally at organizations, as well as providing clarity for consumers. Sure, it’s easy to be wishy-washy, to say “well, it’s ok if we do this thing or that thing, even if it’s not exactly on-strategy”. But that’s not the right thing to do.

Making Trade-offs. Here’s the thing about your strategy – no consumer ever sees it. They only see your brand’s actions and activities. So you need to line up your activities with your strategy – that’s where your competitive differentiation takes place. And showing that there are limits to your activities – customers you won’t serve, and activities you won’t do (as CVS decided) – is a critical part of your efforts. As Michael Porter says, the essence of strategy is choosing what not to do.

So let’s have a big hand for CVS this year as they walk down the red carpet. And here’s to hoping all your brands get their chances to win awards next year for what they stopped doing or refuse to do.

*Originally posted in TalentZoo on Friday, March 7, 2014

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