For well over a year now, we marketers have been busy just surviving. But soon, the first round of recovery strategy workshops will be upon us. Which academic marketing theory will frame the debate in those stuffy rooms along the M4 corridor? Which thinker’s model will soon fill every flipchart in the land?
The answer may boil down to your view of how best your brand can create competitive advantage at this critical point of the economic cycle.
Back in the days of irrational exuberance, the emphasis was on expansive, unconventional and contrarian thinking. Chan Kim and Renee Mauborgne argued in their Blue Ocean Strategy that the key to lasting success was to create uncontested market space. In their words, the aim was to ‘make the competition irrelevant’.
Don’t compete within your category, they argued. Instead, create a new one. Carlos Ghosn of Nissan was an early acolyte. In the world of communications, Jean-Marie Dru of TBWA\ ploughed a similar intellectual furrow with his philosophy of Disruption.
However, there’s another theory which may win more converts in this post-traumatic age. In their 2005 book Simply Better, Patrick Barwise and Sean Meehan contested that the key to creating lasting differentiation is not to create a new category. Instead, what you have to do is deliver the generic benefits of your current category better than the competition.
For many of us, there is something inherently appealing in the Blue Ocean position. It casts the marketer as a revolutionary, an iconoclast. Wouldn’t we all, in our heart of hearts, like to be Steve Jobs of Apple, reframing computers as Tools For Creative People and thus enabling a manufacturer of little grey boxes to carve out a healthy slice of the music publishing industry?
From an agency perspective, it’s just easier to excite a client with a Blue Ocean strategy than it is with a Simply Better plan. Being disruptive is sexy. It’s for Alpha Minds. ‘Just being better’ sounds dull and hard, like that desultory school report comment ‘could try harder’. If Blue Ocean Strategy is a two-week leadership retreat in Big Sur, Simply Better is double maths on a rainy Wednesday morning at a Midlands grammar school.
Any academic philosophy which has as one of its six key principles ‘Focus on the big picture, not the numbers’ is going to win followers in our profession. (Before I am accused of caricature, I should point out that Kim and Mauborgne advocate business modelling and risk management as key steps in any Blue Ocean Strategy.)
It’s possible to argue that the recession makes disruptive Blue Ocean thinking not just helpful, but essential. Tectonic plates have shifted. Waitrose has an Essentials range. GM Europe is now owned by a bunch of people you last came across making small-arms for the Austro-Hungarian Empire. In this world of topsy-turveydom, one could reason, category boundaries are in flux. Now is the perfect time, while media prices are still depressed, to reach beyond existing demand and win a greater share of the future. Fortune favours the bold, and all that.
As a guide to action, the Simply Better philosophy lacks the audacity of Blue Ocean Strategy. You are asked to start by considering what customers really want from your category. Market research looms large, with an emphasis fairly and squarely on the numbers.
It’s when you consider its practical application that the true audacity of Simply Better thinking shines through. Think about the pains which Lexus took to get inside the heads of US luxury car buyers. And the single-mindedness with which the brand went about meeting those needs better than the established competition. Stories like that cast the marketer in a role every bit as heroic as the Blue Ocean revolutionary.
Blue Ocean Strategy and Simply Better are two of the most influential and stimulating marketing philosophies of the last ten years. But which school of thought is the most useful guide to the marketer in this troubled age? In case you haven’t already guessed, I would advocate Simply Better, for three reasons.
The first reason is this. In every focus group I have attended in the last year, one sentiment has been voiced more stridently and more consistently than all the rest. It’s the apparently incontrovertible view that Nothing Does What It’s Supposed To Do Any More. Banks don’t keep your money safe. Insurance doesn’t insure. Fast food isn’t actually that fast.
Yes, the recession has probably created exciting opportunities for brands to re-invent their categories. But there can be little doubt that it has also created large segments of customers whose core needs from those categories are no longer being met. This is especially true of brands in the service sector, where the gap between promise and delivery has been stretched by cost-paring.
The next reason why Simply Better gets my vote is that it has never been easier to find out what consumers really want from your category. And I’m not just talking about the softness of prices in the market research industry. Online research, both quantitative and qualitative, provides marketers with an access to insight which was unimaginable at the cusp of previous recoveries.
The final reason why Simply Better is my Official Philosophy Of The Recovery is this. The recession has brought about more creative destruction than most of us would care to experience for at least another decade. Or two. In putting the pieces back together, brands have the opportunity to rethink the way they gather insights, develop products and deliver services. Never has there been a better opportunity to re-tool the organisation to deliver what matters most to customers.
This article originally appeared in Marketing Week.
Rare roast beef on good bread, Plymouth Gin, thunderstorms, Autumn, a long sea voyage.