Wicked good strategy

Written by Rick Spence

Motoring through Maine on the way home from Halifax last summer, my family unanimously voted that we stop at a blueberry stand. But we were on a busy two-lane highway, and by the time we saw the small, unremarkable berry stands, it was usually too late to pull over. Until we saw a big sign ahead, announcing: “Wicked Good Blueberries.” Nothing could stop us from stopping.

Truth is, the blueberries were only average. (The farmer said the bears were getting to the good ones first.) But smart marketing had done the trick. These wise farmers were the only outfit that had understood the practical need for advance promotion. And they had stopped us in our tracks by promising an experience above and beyond that of their rivals.

Here’s another situation you might face. You’re a college graduate looking for your first full-time job. These days, you have choices. Where would you rather work: at a big, bland corporation that gives you a nine-digit number, or at a dynamic small company that offers you an iPod for accepting its offer, puts up a lawn sign to welcome you and gives you your birthday off?

Final scenario: your business is choosing a new telecom supplier. Who are you more likely to buy from: the marketer who sends you a personalized piece of direct mail that proposes a customized bundle of services that will save you $50 a month, or the company with a one-eighth ad in the Yellow Pages?

Costs and benefits being roughly equal, you will choose the establishment that shows the most interest in you; who cleared away the barriers to buying; who made the most effort to understand your needs; who made you feel special.

Surely that’s the biggest secret to business: figuring out how to make a bigger impact on prospects and customers than your competitors do. Most players in your industry are peddling similar solutions. It’s only how they do it that stands out.

Look at Loblaws, which outfoxed its rivals by stocking a handful of private-label brands, making its inventory only 98% identical to everyone else’s. Or think of Four Seasons, which built a world brand based on service. Think of the bellman who hailed a cab and followed a guest to the airport to deliver the briefcase he’d left behind. Big businesses are built on little differences, well executed, well communicated.

But, of course, business is tough and your margins are tight. How can you afford to build a competitive differentiator into your products?

It doesn’t have to cost a lot. That “Wicked Good” sign paidfor itself long ago, but it keeps on working. The barber who handed my son a lollipop after his most recent haircut won a loyal customer for about a penny. WestJet’s homespun friendliness costs no more than Air Canada’s cool detachment.

Call it the 2% Solution. What can you do in your business — in service, for instance, or in sales or recruiting — that will transform your value proposition without adding more than 2% to the costs of that operation?

G.A.P Adventures of Toronto, Canada’s largest adventure-tour operator, considers itself a company of travellers. It’s essential for all of its employees to share the “Sure, I’ll ride in the back of the bus with the chickens for six hours in order to watch the sun rise over a jungle temple” ethic of its customers. So, founder and CEO Bruce Poon Tip offers each employee a free tour every year to make sure they experience the G.A.P difference and understand the customers’ needs first-hand.

Every 2% Solution will be different. A firm of which I am a director recently launched a program to create a new image for itself. To be known as a knowledgeable, long-term partner in its market niche, the company created a branding campaign that depicted its customers as heroes. The campaign uses ads, articles and a specialty website to promote the people in its market and play up their shared excitement in their industry. It restored customers’ confidence in the future of their industry. For a cost that’s a small fraction of this company’s marketing budget, it is turning customers into partners. Some have begun asking the company to work with them on new projects.

Look within your business to find an opportunity to implement a 2% Solution. Find a trouble spot that needs creative solutions. It may be your recruiting effort, staff training or employee morale. It could be a sales incentive, trade-show promotion or a website in need of upgrading. Appoint a few employees to assess the problem and propose a 2% Solution. Chances are the very act of investigating the situation will result in changes for the better. And, if not, people will be thrilled that you are throwing some cash at the problem, and they’ll be eager to encourage you by producing results.

Do things with drama. Strive to make a bigger impact on every customer. Eschew average. And don’t fear failure. Bad ideas pave the road to wicked good ones. You and your people will have earned valuable insights into teamwork, innovation and resistance to change. You can put those lessons to work when you turn around and try again.

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