Breakout Strategies in Tough Times

Entering 2013, we have larger challenges than ever.  Economic slowdowns in Europe and projected softening demand in Asia and elsewhere are forcing CEOs to pursue more challenging growth opportunities.  This is not an option: we grow or we die.

For many firms, growth has historically come from new products or innovative extensions to existing products.  The simple growth strategy where R&D generates a new widget, Marketing promotes it, and Sales introduces it to customers isn’t working that well any more.  And even if revenue is growing, profits are often generated at the expense of ever deepening cuts in personnel, core capabilities, and reduced investment in capital and equipment.  CEOs are worried that soon they will have to pay the proverbial piper.

M&A alone won’t do it either.  While firms can and often should acquire or merge to become more competitive, most M&A data shows that the combined enterprise delivers little increased profitability.  At best, results are additive, not multiplicative or geometric.  So what’s next?  Where can we find that elusive growth?

Leading companies are broadening their definition of growth beyond traditional product-based categories to include more novel growth strategies.  For CEOs to take advantage of any of them, they must consider the real impacts on their businesses and determine the capabilities they will need to succeed.

First, creative CEOs need to generate a complete portfolio of growth initiatives that include: geographic expansion and M&A; product-based extensions and positioning; integration or bundling of products and services; marketing-driven initiatives like segmentation and value-pricing; localized delivery through outsourced capabilities; value-driven arrangements like performance guarantees; and IT-based strategies like remote services.

Second, CEOs need to determine how best to apply scarce resources to these initiatives, being especially careful to avoid the trap of over-investing in existing businesses – through both capital and key resource allocation – at the expense of novel and potentially much more profitable strategies.  Communicating the necessity of and how best to implement novel strategies to their boards is a critical challenge.  Key questions include: “Do I have the right leaders in the current businesses?  Can my current team succeed in these new lines of business?  Is the plan aggressive enough?  Have we achieved the right balance of risk and projected return?”

Finally, only careful analysis will determine whether any of these breakout strategies are appropriate for your firm.  Can you get buy-in from all stakeholder groups?  Will employees get excited about the new opportunities?  Will the board support the initiatives?  Can you communicate the new direction effectively to analysts and investors?

In these especially demanding times, CEOs must gain a broader perspective and challenge their internal teams’ assumptions.  Make sure that you incorporate external research and insights into your thinking before making the hard calls.

Messaging – the Holy Grail of Marketing

[Guest post contributed by Cathy Martin]

Have you ever read a company’s website or marketing collateral, or had a conversation with one of its execs, and come away from the encounter with absolutely no idea what the company does – or why you should care? Me too, all the time.

Obviously, the company in question has major issues with messaging. 

What troubles me most when I encounter ineffective messaging is that it’s usually an indication that the company lacks a solid positioning foundation. A well-defined positioning strategy is mission-critical for any business. For entrepreneurial companies, it’s pretty much a make or break deal.

Let’s talk about positioning for a moment. 

Positioning can be defined in many different ways. I often explain it to clients like this…

Okay, imagine the ideal impact you could have on your ideal target customer. Now, imagine marketing that conveys this impact in a way that creates the ideal perception in the mind of that target customer. The process of defining this perception, the “mental position” you want to occupy (in the mind of the customer), is the fine art of positioning.

Al Ries and Jack Trout said it best in the classic, The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing: “Marketing is not a battle of products, it’s a battle of perceptions.”

Positioning is key because it shifts your focus from the internal issues of building your company/product, and aims it squarely on your real “reason for being” – the unique customer value that you offer (your secret sauce and greatest competitive advantage) Once your positioning approach is defined, then it’s a matter of crystallizing this positioning into clear, concise, consistent messaging that inspires and engages the target customer.

How’s your messaging working? 

Here’s a litmus test, in case you’re wondering… the most common messaging mistakes I see:

Kitchen sink messaging: When your messaging tries too hard to cover all the bases (be everything to everyone), the end result is that it speaks to no one. If your target customers can’t identify, quickly and easily, how your product offering relates to them, they’re off to the next contender (over and out).

Head scratch messaging: If your messaging is overly complex, vague or confusing – if it contains acronyms, “tech speak” or language that doesn’t readily resonate with the target customer – then you’ve lost a precious opportunity to create a connection with them. They quickly throw in the towel and move on.

Kool-Aid messaging: It’s all too easy to get caught up in your own world, aka “drink the Kool-Aid”, where the center of the universe is the product you’re delivering. After all, those bells and whistles are very cool, right? Unfortunately, folks aren’t going to care about all that, unless your marketing makes them care – by clearly conveying the unique value that you offer and precisely what it means to them.

Yeah, right messaging: Sure, your messaging should absolutely put your best foot forward in a way that’s bold and compelling. However, if it makes claims that seem too grandiose or unbelievable, then target customers are left to wonder about the reality of what you’re offering and the truth of your promises. Obviously, that’s deadly.

Me too messaging: I know, sometimes your competitors say things that you believe are “more true” about your company or product than theirs. But, if your messaging mimics theirs, or generally sounds like everyone else, your target customers are going to see you as just another sheep in the herd (or is that the flock?).

Messaging du jour: Here it is, the  #1 Hall of Fame messaging pitfall… messaging that changes as fast, or as often, as central Texas weather. When your messaging is constantly shifting – without a validated reason or managed approach – nothing sticks, nobody gets it, you stake no clear ground in the marketplace. Game over, time to pack up your toys and go home.

Any way you slice it, creating messaging that captures and conveys your unique customer value, with precision and impact, can be a challenging endeavor. If you suspect that your messaging isn’t working quite right, don’t take it lightly. Find a way to remedy that situation – and fast.

This post was provided by Cathy Martin, owner of Cathy Martin Consults, an entrepreneurial marketing consulting firm based in Austin, Texas. Over the last two decades, Cathy has worked with dozens of companies – all shapes, sizes, stages and flavors – to define positioning strategies, messaging platforms, practical marketing plans and programs. For more entrepreneurial marketing insights, see: www.cathymartin.com.

 

 

 

 

Two Reasons for Five Common Strategy Mistakes

Growth relies on having a superior strategy, and in her recent HBR post, Joan Magretta identifies five common strategy mistakes. In reading the piece, two common antecedents became apparent. Hopefully, naming them will amplify rather than oversimplify her points, since she expertly explains how to correct each of the five.

The twin antecedent causes are a lack of clarity and a lack of focus:

  1. Confusing marketing with strategy – While good marketing is important, simply identifying your value to customers is insufficient to win big and often. A clear understanding of why you’ll win using focused execution is vital.
  2. Confusing competitive advantage with “what you’re good at” – Just being good at certain things isn’t enough to win business. Most companies are good in multiple areas, but sometimes the “strengths” they identify are merely minimum requirements to stay in business, like good customer service. Clarifying what you’re uniquely good at and how your unique blend of products, services, and relationships delivers higher value than competitors’ offerings leads to real growth.
  3. Pursuing size above all else, because if you’re the biggest, you’ll be more profitable – A young, smaller company with a clear and focused strategy can maintain higher margins than larger competitors. It happens in many industries, and Joan’s example of BMW versus GM makes the point.
  4. Thinking that “growth” or “reaching $1 billion in revenue” is a strategy – Desiring to “grow the business” and “enhance revenue” constitute objectives; they don’t identify the strategic moves needed to fulfill them. As discussed often in this blog (e.g., see “Attacking Business Entropy“), clarity about positioning is crucial and fundamental to a successful strategy.
  5. Focusing on high-growth markets, because that’s where the money is – The retail sector was not a high growth market when Amazon entered it. It’s a classic example of finding a new, better way of attacking an old, slow growth market to take share from existing competitors.

Why is it important to get strategy right? Operations-focused CEOs sometimes wonder if strategy is about hiring high-paid consultants to create pretty slides and well-written plans for consumption by boards of directors and investment bankers. As pointed out here before, clear and focused strategic thinking is the key to effective execution. Clarity and focus provide the foundation, and the value of the results – accelerated growth, higher margins, and increased understanding of the market – profoundly surpass the value of a new presentation.

Poke the Box – Now

Seth Godin’s latest little book (little in size, not in ideas) called Poke the Box takes its name from a “buzzer box” an MIT Ph.D. uncle built for a cousin decades ago. “The box had two switches, some lights, and a few other controls on it. Flip one switch and a light goes on. Flip both switches and a buzzer sounds… A kid sees the buzzer box and starts poking it. If I do this, that happens!

As the CEO of a business, it’s easy to get trapped in a comfort zone that provides a false sense of security (“I have this all under control”). While you’re “running the business” (translation: working on operational issues and managing finance), your competitors are finding ways to deliver better, faster, and cheaper products and services. You can delegate much of  running the business, but the buck stops with you when it comes to guiding the company through the constant change needed first to hold your position and then to grow.

One way to poke the box is to partner with a company that has related interests. Consider a list of companies that (a) could acquire your company someday or (b) would grow your value through an alliance or acquisition. Take the initiative to determine what mutual or complementary interests exist:

  • Expand geographical reach?
  • Extend product life through new capabilities?
  • Enter currently underserved industries?
  • Increase product deployment and service resources?

Once you’re in the swim with a partner, market feedback will flow in and lead you to your next move. If you act, you have no guarantee of success, but if you fail to act, you’re almost guaranteed to fail in the end.

Regardless of what you need to do to grow your business, Godin’s point is that life is a buzzer box, and if we don’t poke it, we don’t learn. All actions in business have risks, but with competitors constantly pressing ahead in a globally connected world, sitting still doesn’t decrease risk – it increases it! Doing nothing cuts us off from feedback that can guide us to value.

Get into the flow now, and adjust as you learn. And read Seth’s book for inspiration.

Three Steps to Growth Through Clarity

So many companies I meet aren’t getting the results they expect. The most common reason is a lack of clarity about (a) who they are, (b) what to communicate, and (c) how to accelerate sales. Correcting the problem enables a level of focus and efficiency that’s otherwise impossible to attain.

Here’s a three-step process to increase clarity in your business:

  1. A successful business begins with clear objectives, but that focus erodes over time as the mix of customer relationships evolves. To accelerate growth, resharpen the company’s current market positioning and gain alignment from your team. You’ll enhance their ability to evaluate potential growth initiatives, and the byproduct will be renewed energy and commitment.
  2. Based on the updated positioning, identify three key messages to communicate through all forms of marketing, including social media. This short list will quickly permeate everything written about your organization: web site, blog posts, sales presentations, tweets, analyst interviews, white papers, and articles. All interested parties – prospects, customers, employees, analysts, investors, press – will speak more clearly and forcefully about the company and its products and services.
  3. Once key messages are identified, develop five key sales qualifiers. Many organizations send salespeople into battle with shotguns instead of rifles. The result? Huge amounts of time are wasted on prospects who could have been eliminated early on. What seems like a tactical issue – qualifying statements for Sales – is often a strategic one. Armed with the right qualifying questions, Sales can quickly eliminate prospects that will never buy, thereby allowing them to spend most of their effort on promising prospects.

While creating this post, I received an unsolicited email from a current client who has used this process. “We have worked on several projects where we needed clarity and proper visual communication in areas of sales, marketing, business development and strategic corporate dealings” and he talks about how our work together has refocused the company.

Need a tuneup? Follow these three steps and lead your team to better execution!

Understate or Overhype?

“Marketing slime!” I used the term back when I developed software, then became its target after moving to the dark side (marketing).

Such statements are usually good-natured, yet tension can arise between software engineers and marketers when discussing appropriate language to describe a product. Engineers by nature must be very precise and may prefer to losing a prospect over misleading them. Marketers want to draw attention to a product by describing it in the most compelling terms possible and may prefer to stretch the meaning of a desirable word rather than lose a prospect.

Each group has a point. Prospects notice quickly and lose interest when a product description exceeds reality. On the other hand, an opportunity to address their problem can be derailed if a product description is devoid of words that connect with their needs.

Think about it like this. The diagram below represents the continuum between understatement and overhyping. Overhyping product capabilities hurts prospects by misleading them into thinking a problem can be solved when it can’t. Understating capabilities prevents them from solving their problem because they don’t fully understand what the product can do.

Clarity is the goal. What does the product do? What types of problems can be realistically solved? Language that both clarifies and motivates is the goal. Sales success is the result.