Do What Others Can't Do -- Not What Others Don't Do

If Barnes and Noble wants to avoid going the way of Kodak it needs to:
...take the products and services if offers and leverage them in a way that no one else in the category is doing, or can do.
This is the suggestion of branding guru and Forbes contributor, Allen Adamson  in How Barnes and Noble Can Save Itself From Becoming a Kodak Moment. Can do are the key words. Offering your customers something that no one else can is the great strategic opportunity and challenge that faces every competitive business. Few manage to meet the challenge and exploit the opportunity. Failure to offer customers what no one else can nudges companies over the edge of differentiation into the abyss of commoditization. In this descending death spiral these companies compete on price which benefits customers but only in the short term. The talent in these cost-driven companies fighting for their survival strains under the effort of doing more with less as managers wring every cent of efficiency out of their systems. Shareholders lose value and ultimately their industry is disrupted by new technology or someone else somewhere else offers what they do cheaper and better. Finis! But how realistic is it really to offer your customers something that no one else can? Getting this right is core to the  Lead By Greatness strategic thinking. I have been introducing to my clients in multiple industries and countries to this thinking and method. Their growth and return has been unrivaled -- and here's why: You can do things for your clients that are so specific to who you are that no one else can imitate them while still being experienced as authentic. However, you can't identify these unique offerings with the conventional method of studying your customers' needs and scanning your competitive landscape. Whatever conclusions you reach using the conventional approach will lead you to the same conclusions that your competitors will have reached. Competitive convergence results and sooner or later you will again find yourself competing on price. The secret to unassailable competitive advantage lies in your ability to find your unique offerings from deep within your own soul and the soul of your company or team not from your customers or competitors. (I don't use the word soul in its metaphysical sense, but as that intangible quality that each individual and group of people have that differentiates their character, personality, tastes and values from others - much more about this in Lead By Greatness on Amazon next week!) With the current speed of information diffusion, nothing we do in design, process or structure remains unique for long. What truly differentiates people is not their physical characteristics but something deeper: their values, personalities --their souls. We know that one artist, poet or author cannot replicate the work of another in a way that carries with it the power of authenticity that the original possessed. Well, the same applies to business: Your products and services, in fact your entire business is a work of art if it expresses something deep within you and deep within the members of your leadership team. When you match the expression of your own soul with the deep needs of customers, you have an unassailable advantage because no one else is like you; no one else shares your soul. The problem is that this is not how most business leaders have been taught to build their differentiation strategies. In Lead By Greatness I outline the methodology that I have applied successfully to my clients' businesses. There are many business leaders who have figured it out for themselves or who have done it intuitively. What Google does is an expression of the very souls of Brin and Page; what Southwest set out to do was core to who Herb Kelleher is; and what Apple does is core to who Steve Jobs was. None of these founders built their models from customer focus groups or competitive analysis. They redefined their industries with products that customers and competitors could not have imagined at the time. They did not build strategy on data, they built strategy on who they were and what they believed, and then they brilliantly operationalized it. Each of their companies -- Google, Southwest and Apple -- have soul. Each of them has a differentiation factor that no one else has been able to copy. (In earlier blogs I have dealt with whether these unique differentiation strategies can outlive their creators.) If RIM would have stayed faithful to its soul and continued to design product authentic to who they are, rather than try to play catch-up with inherently different products and businesses, it might be in better shape today. So can Barnes and Nobles avoid the fate of Borders? Absolutely they can. To do so though it is not sufficient to "make a better mousetrap" as Allen suggests. They will need to probe deep into the soul of their organization, identify and articulate the unique DNA that makes them different from anyone else who ever has or ever will sell books, and then build a strategy from the inside out. Fortunately for them, there is a tried and tested methodology for this process, and the track record of its success makes it a no-brainer.    

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