The following, as suggested by the title, is an update to my old post cataloguing various strategic hacks, tricks, and thought experiments.
The article and old items are the same as before, but I’ve added a bunch of new ones – which I’ve highlighted for people who read the original already.
Hope it’s of use, stay tuned for volume 3!
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 newsletter. 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 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 little resource 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.
NEW – The most simple strategic framework
The value proposition in the hierarchy is the strategy. There is no rule for how this should be written, however a very basic framework can be found in the cascade: goal, strategy, actions. What is the thing you’re trying to achieve, how will you achieve it, and what actions are required to make it happen. There’s nothing clever about this, but it does have a couple of advantages. By separating “goal” and “strategy” it should stop you falling into the common trap of confusing the two. And by prioritising “actions”, it forces you to get practical (too many strategies are pure theory). The following diagram illustrates the dynamic of this cascade, whereby the strategy represents the sum of the actions, which are drawn together to achieve the goal.
NEW – The first goal of strategy
We all know that strategy is meant to differentiate you from your competitors. That goes without saying. However there is one other thing it’s meant to do which is even more fundamental – to differentiate you from yourself. To make you different than you were yesterday. It’s easy to spin some bullshit strategy, change nothing, and rationalise that you’re “being strategic” – but it’s a lie. A strategy only exists if it results in blatantly obvious change before and after. Therefore the first question you should be asking, if you want to judge a strategy, is “has this made us different?”. If not, then the strategy simply doesn’t exist.
NEW – The two types of strategy
Depending on where your business is in its development, there are two different ways to approach strategy. If your business is still in the startup phase, and is pre reliable profitability, you need a starter strategy. Starter strategies are built on limited information, and thus are speculative, experimental, and probably temporary. You get them from observing the market, and asking what it needs. If however your business is mature and profitable, you need a maturation strategy, which is more empirical and internally focused, asking “what have we made here?”. This aims to cement a permanent direction you’ll follow forever more – like Dolly Parton said “find out who you are, and then do it on purpose”. This table sketches the difference between the two.
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.
NEW – The challenger trap
The challenger trap can best be defined as “fighting the status quo with the status quo” – when a startup tries to challenge the dominant brands in its category using the same position those brands already hold. Why does this happen? Well, most categories these days are now dominated by a brand that once upon a time was a textbook “challenger” (e.g. Apple, Innocent, etc.). This led to the values of these brands becoming labelled “challenger” even though they are now the dominant forces in the market. As a result wannabe challenger brands tend to foolishly copy these brands, thinking they are being challenging when in fact they are doing the opposite. They forget a challenger to Innocent wouldn’t look like Innocent; it would stand against Innocent. Don’t let your admiration for the old guard blind you to the fact they are now the bad guys.
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 which 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 which is both unique (within its category) but also familiar (within the consumer’s brain).
NEW – The toilet paper rule
Naturally, we all look up to the sexiest brands out there. Apple, Patagonia, Tesla, Supreme, Red Bull, Nike etc. This is generally OK, since they do indeed have a lot to teach us. However there is one big problem: they all occupy intrinsically interesting categories. Consumer tech, outdoor gear, athletic fashion, luxury cars etc. – these are things people are interested in regardless of the brand. And that means brands within those categories have a far greater bandwidth to sell sophisticated stories and strategies – simply because the punters are paying more attention. Most brands don’t occupy such categories. In fact most brands occupy categories consumers don’t give a shit about. As a result their strategies must be much more shallow and direct – like the Andrex puppy communicating “softness” (hence the toilet paper rule). Bottom line you must respect the consumer’s indifference. If you don’t, you’ll end up looking ridiculous. Here’s a handy graph to show what I mean.
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 more bland 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 vivd 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 who 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.
NEW – Minimum viable strategy
The great brands are those who follow their strategies to extreme, and thus remarkable degrees. They don’t just offer “X”, they go overboard in offering it. Still, admirable as this is, realistically most brands will never get there. Instead they would be better advised not to let “perfect be the enemy of the good”, and simply ask “what is the minimum we would need to do to be following this strategy?”. In other words, where is the binary dividing line between delivering on it, and not? Figuring this out will enable you to pick out the actions and changes to prioritise, so you can move quickly and decisively.
The creative canvas
This is the space on 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 which is truly remarkable and juicy in its space.
NEW – The subjectivity test
As a pal of mine once said, “if I ever see an agency describe themselves as creative, I immediately know that they aren’t”. Subjective language – good, better, best, excellent etc. – has no place in a strategy, value offering, or anything of the sort. Subjective judgements belong to the consumer, not to you. Your job is enact an objective strategy which you hope will yield those judgements. In my experience if a strategy has subjective language anywhere with it, then it’s a strategy void of content. Ruthlessly expunge any such words, and see what you have left.
The strategy paradox
Another one I didn’t coin but wish I had, the strategy paradox is the acknowledgement 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 all together.
NEW – Multi-layer pacing
How often should a strategy change? The answer is never. Once a business has matured it basically is what it is, it offers what it offers, and it shouldn’t deviate from that hard won reputation. However this doesn’t mean the behaviours of the business shouldn’t change. They should, a lot, because to hold a steady strategy requires constant change. The world is moving, so if you want to stand still you need to move with it. The way to think of this is to imagine the pace of change increasing as you move from macro to micro. Your strategy should never change; your product should sometimes change; your marketing should change often. This diagram sketches the concept.
I’m definitely missing out a bunch here, but that will do for now!
If you like then file it away, and hopefully it will come in useful from time to time when you’re looking for new ways to approach a problem.