Informal Ways To Improve Your Strategy
One question I’m asked, again and again, is what I think of Simon Sinek’s famous “why”.
If you don’t know what this is, then I’m very surprised that you’re reading this blog. However, to offer a totally redundant recap, his basic thesis was that “people don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it”, i.e. the philosophical motivation for your business rather what the product itself actually offers.
When I’m asked this question, the inflection generally either expects me to offer an enthusiastic endorsement of the idea or to rip it to shreds (with the latter becoming increasingly common as time rolls by). Unfortunately, I’m not really able to offer either of these, because whilst I think the concept is in no way a universal solution that will solve a brand’s every problem (I’d estimate that for 80% it’s pretty useless), I’d also concede that on occasion when things are lined up just right, it can be really useful. Some companies have indeed had genuine breakthroughs by “finding their why”.
(Incidentally, I would also say that it’s really a leadership tool rather than one for strategic positioning, and in that capacity, it’s more useful, but I digress..)
So this is just the thing. Like all strategic “models”, Sinek’s why is great some of the time, but useless most of the time. And this has presented a big problem to the “strategic industry” at large.
You see, in order to gain a competitive advantage, make headlines, write books, and charge more, the industry has always essentially had to lie. This lie is always the same: the lie that there can be one model or framework to rule them all. One proprietary process that a consultancy has come up with which leaves all the others in the dust, and that you simply must adopt if you want to achieve stunning growth.
Any time a consultancy’s process has a name (especially with a registered trademark), you know they’re playing this game.
Now, these processes are by no means bad – on the contrary, often they’re very clever – but they will always run into scenarios where they aren’t appropriate. On such occasions you’d be better off with nothing – just as a lost traveller would be better off no map than a map of a different place to the one they’re in.
For this reason, I use no map.
It doesn’t look as flashy or professional, and gives projects a rambling informal feel – but fundamentally it’s honest.
Continuing the analogy however, even if you don’t have a map telling you where to go, that doesn’t mean there aren’t other tricks, techniques, and understandings a skilled navigator might be able to use to find their way: the position of the stars; the way moss grows on a tree; the direction of a stream; etc.
Strategy is much the same, and so here I wanted to compile a list of these informal ideas in case you find them helpful. Not one idea to rule them all, but a bag of them to be mixed as appropriate.
This is basically a bundle of various ideas I’ve written about in the past summarised in one place, so apologies for repetition, but I thought this format might be helpful.
They are by no means comprehensive – other people will have others, and if you know of any yourself please do share and I’ll add to the list. Equally most won’t be useful on a given project; that’s why you need a blend of many to find your way. In the future, when I’ve come up with more, I’ll send you an updated list.
It’s long, so think of this less like an “essay”, and more like a glossary of strategic ideas that you might find useful in the future.
Off we go…
The strategic hierarchy
The whole of a company can be boiled down into three cascading pieces: the value proposition, the brand, and delivery. The value proposition is what the business offers to the market. The brand is how that value is communicated. And the delivery is, obviously, how the value is delivered. That’s all there is to it. One, two, three. Get these lined up, and you’ll have something great on your hands.
Weirding the normal / normaling the weird
One most of you will be familiar with, separating all brands into one of two boxes: those which need to “weird the normal”, and those which need to “normal the weird”. Most fall into the former category, and are defined as brands who make a product which is fundamentally similar to their competitors: soap, shoes, cars, cereal, accountancy software, gyms, engine oil, etc. – these are all things people are familiar with, and as such successful brands in these spaces need to make these old ideas seem “weird” and fresh. Some brands however make products which are genuinely new and different – e.g. Uber, Airbnb, Peoloton, etc. In these cases their job is the opposite: they need to make their “scary” and “confusing” new idea seem familiar and safe. Hence “normaling the weird”. Knowing which you are sets a good foundation from which to proceed.
The strategic lifecycle
The three stages all brands must pass through to strategic maturity: experimentation, consolidation, acceleration. Most never leave the first stage, which just as it sounds, means experimenting in order to try and stumble across market traction. The smart ones, however, when they have traction, attempt to consolidate, by asking why they have that traction. What have they hit upon? Knowing the answer they are then able to start doing this thing in a deliberate and focused way – acceleration. Short of getting extremely lucky, this is the only way to become strategically powerful.
Everybody should understand the importance of offering new value to a market. If you don’t achieve this, then why bother? Fewer however understand the importance of offering contrarian value – which is not only new, but in active disagreement with the other brands in the category. “They think X but we think Y”. By doing this, you are able to not only bring something new to the table, but do it in a way that your competitors can’t copy, because to do so would involve undermining their own position.
Only is better than best
This one is quite simply about avoiding the temptation to try to be “better” than your competitors. Better simply means “the same”. It means “we both do this thing, but we do it a tiny bit more”. It doesn’t generate market traction (although everyone thinks it does). Instead, you should always try to focus on being the “only X”, rather than the “best X”. This grammatical requirement will force you to push your strategy to new places.
The one-click rule
Lots of young brands, understanding the importance of being new and different, take it too far. They try to be as different as possible on every metric you can imagine. This is a mistake. Generally speaking, consumers are only prepared to take one step – or “one-click” – away from what they are familiar with. That’s why if you’re doing something new, you should work hard to make sure all the other aspects of your brand are as normal as possible. Otherwise, you end up with this really wacky thing that people simply don’t get. Only change that which your strategy demands. With the rest, be boring as possible.
Cross category copying
Copy is bad, except when it isn’t. And that is when you copy from brands in categories completely unconnected to your own. Whatever your value proposition is, chances are someone will be offering something quite similar in a different space. If they have been successful, they will have “trained” consumers to expect this proposition to look and feel a certain way. Do yourself a favour and copy it. Make use of the hard work someone else has done. This will help you build the holy grail: a brand that is both unique (within its category) but also familiar (within the consumer’s brain).
Any old idiot can focus on what they want to do well. Far less common is to focus on what you want to do poorly – which is a shame, as it’s a good way to unlock significant value. If you can identify something which all your competitors do well, but which you don’t want to focus on, then you should take things one step further and explore what it would look like if you were to absolutely suck at that thing. Or better still, simply don’t do it at all. Sometimes this can unlock the opportunity to do something extremely powerful which simply wasn’t possible while that other value was still in play – the classic example being the low-cost airline category’s abandonment of business travellers.
The true competitor
Most people think, understandably, that their competitors are those things that look like them. Although this may be the case, it is rarely sufficient, as in fact, your true competitor is “that thing which people might buy instead of you”. Sometimes this can be incredibly different – such as how a Harley’s true competitor might be seen as a conservatory. By understanding yours, you are able to understand the shape of your real category – not the one marked out by arbitrary data, but the much more important one that exists in consumers’ heads. This can and should wildly change how you behave, as you discover a whole new “market” to navigate.
The targeting paradox
Conventional wisdom would say that the wider your target market, the more people you will appeal to. This is a mistake, since the more acceptable you attempt to be, the blander and thus invisible and unexciting you will become. Instead, it can be a good idea to make your hypothetical target market extremely narrow – much too small on paper for you to grow. By doing this you are able to shape yourself for a really interesting and aspirational “ideal customer”, and thus become more distinctive. This distinctiveness will then be picked up on by consumers who sit outside of that target, but who will then buy you anyway (because punters care far more about something being vivid and eye-catching than being made “for them”). Thus your appeal grows as it narrows.
Clustering / declustering
Clustering is a phenomenon that occurs when the process of competition in a market makes its brands more and more alike. This happens because when one makes a certain play, the others, not wanting to be left behind, copy it. Gradually over time, as they copy each other, they begin to converge until the market is commoditised. Declustering on the other hand occurs when competitors leave each other to their own devices, and let each other look after their own part of the market. “Divide and conquer” if you like. In this scenario the market becomes more richly served, and profits grow for everyone.
Leading by following
People think a founder’s job is to lead their company, but the truth is kinda the opposite. Their primary job is to follow it. This is because it is almost impossible to predict how a business will perform in the market before the fact – it will always behave in unexpected ways. Therefore in order to make the business work, you must let it find its own position, and then get on board with that whether or not it was what you originally intended. In software they call this the search for product market fit. This is where I always repeat the great Dolly Parton line: “find out who you are, and then do it on purpose” — which is very different from “decide who you want to be”, which doesn’t work nearly as well.
Not one I coined sadly, but everyone loves it. A bland is a brand that has consciously or unconsciously copied the norms of “modern” brands like Harry’s shave, Casper mattresses, and the hundreds of other brands like them. Pastel colours, androgynous / feminine vibe, thoughtful “story”, twee copy, elegant typography, and all the rest. There’s nothing wrong with any of this in and of itself, only it has become so ubiquitous that it struggles to stand out. Hence “bland”. It also only really caters to one part of the market and one kind of consumer, leaving the rest of the market underserved, and commercial potential withering on the vine.
The creative canvas
This is the space in which you can bring your brand to life. For most, it is simply their media assets (logo, ads, and the like). But for the best, it is their whole company, guts and all. You should endeavour to map it by making a list of all the different “parts” of your organisation which you could creatively spin, and then going through them one by one and “brandifying” them in line with your strategy. This is how you create a business that is truly remarkable and juicy in its space.
The strategy paradox
Another one I didn’t coin but wish I had, the strategy paradox is the acknowledgment that having a strong strategy does’t only raise your chances of massive success – it raises the chances of massive failure as well. As the originator of the phrase, Michael Raynor, put it: “the opposite of success is not failure but mediocrity”. When you follow a strategy you are making a bet on something – a bet which might work, and might not. The absence of strategy on the other hand generally means refusing to make a bet, and just muddling along in a reactive fashion. This latter approach probably won’t take you anywhere exciting, but on the plus side, it is very low risk. So whilst strategy is great, be aware of what you’re getting yourself into.
This is just what it sounds like: having a strategy and committing to it fully, with emphasis on the commitment side of the equation. A strategy, naturally, is only as good as its execution, and a hardcore execution of a mediocre strategy is a hell of a lot better than a limp execution of a great strategy. Indeed many businesses have become wildly successful purely through aggressive execution of thoroughly mundane and undifferentiated positions – so at a push sufficiently punchy execution can replace the need for strategy altogether.
I’m definitely missing out a bunch here, but that will do for now!
If you think you can use this glossary of strategic terms, share it, and save it. It will come in use from time to time when you’re looking for new ways to approach a problem.