The Cringe Test

One of my favourite things is to come up with new ways of explaining old concepts.

They say there’s nothing new under the sun, and I think that’s true – but there are new ways of expressing things, and they can be just as valuable.  After all, every new expression of an old idea makes it new to a fresh group of people who didn’t quite “get” the old way of saying it.

And, needless to say, in strategy this technique is essential.

Everybody’s heard the old ways of talking about it, and most of them still don’t get it.  So the only way around it is to keep saying the same old stuff in new ways, with new angles, and new thought experiments.

And today, I want to show you a good one.

I’m gonna name it “The Cringe Test”, and it’s a test which you can apply to your own business, to measure its strategic strength.

Ready?  Here it is:

Tell me what your business does, without mentioning your product, or sounding like a prat.

Can you do it?

This is a powerful test because it reveals the presence (or absence) of strategy in two key ways.

I. Product detachment

The first part of the test – saying what your business does without mentioning the product or service – establishes whether your business is focused on delivering value (which is “above” product), or just product (which could potentially deliver many different forms of value).

As regular readers will know, the essence of strategy is to find a way to offer extraordinary value to the market – and a product or service is merely a tool with which to deliver that value.

No clear idea of value?  Then no strategy.  And not being able to describe your business without resorting to a description of the product is a clear “tell” that this is the case.

So to use myself as an example, my product is obviously “strategy consultancy services”.  However if I was to describe my business without resorting to that I could say something like “I help brands make bold moves to escape the competition”.  The fact is that I do this in various ways other than consultancy – for example this newsletter – thus enabling brand stretch and consistency.

II. The cringe factor

That first part is pretty standard fare, but this second part is what makes the test effective.

Most CEOs could make a pretty good stab at describing their business without mentioning their product, IF they resorted to cringey platitudes.

Stuff like:

“We delight our customers”
“We nurture the human spirit”
“We make life easier for people”
“We brighten the everyday”

Now that’s all well and good, but imagine being in a pub and answering with one of those when someone asks what you do.  You just wouldn’t.  Or if you did, you’d sound like a prize idiot.  It would be humiliating.  The cringe factor is just far too great.

Answers like these are both grandiose and vague, because they replace strategic content with superlatives.  Therefore by measuring for cringe you can do a pretty good job of instantly establishing whether there’s any strategic content there.

A business with a good strategy will be able to do this without sounding ridiculous.


So how did you do?

If you want to take it a step further you can ask your team to take the test too – you’ll probably get a colourful mix of answers, and who knows, some of them may be pretty good.  At the very least they’ll be revealing.

But speaking broadly it’s always interesting to use these more visceral, less intellectual tests to measure the value of something.

If you find something embarrassing, awkward, or repulsive, there’s probably a pretty good reason for that.

And in the field of strategy (or worse, brand), such reactions are sadly pretty common!

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