What do you do in a world of massive corporate competition where you are fighting with sharks and start-ups simultaneously? Everyone, including I, harp on the fact that a business must provide its customers with a unique customer value proposition. It sounds very cliched. Some of you may even smirk sarcastically when you hear this. After all, there is only so much that one can do in a highly regulated environment such as the banking and finance industry.
So what happens when everyone in the industry is already offering everything that you once believed is unique? Some begin to scream louder than the others with massive marketing spends; some have inherent strengths of being the biggest, oldest, safest and some others may simply dwindle and fade away.
Let me elaborate with a page taken out of Southwest Airlines. Southwest Airlines, which is a favoured low-cost, no-frills carrier in the United States of America, had to face two major competitors – Ted, a subsidiary of United Airlines, and Frontier. Frontier was a veteran in the American aviation travel space that had taken a brief vacation between 1986 and 1990, re-emerging as one of the top low-cost aviation carriers in the world. Frontier and Southwest still have a fair market share despite all the competition in the low-cost airlines space that comes and goes
Southwest Airlines is highly rated in their customer satisfaction primarily because the airline delivers on its promise. It has consistently provided low airfares with commendable operations management, managed its flight timings efficiently and opened air travel to the common man who is more concerned about reaching a far flung destination with ease rather than care about leisure and luxury. Most of the suggestions of improving efficiencies is said to have come from their staff. When its staff realised that they were being heard and their suggestions were respected, their commitment towards delivering on the airline’s value proposition naturally improved as it was driven by a strong culture of engaged staff.
On the other hand, Frontier, which was initially viewed as a carrier that catered to spill traffic from United Airlines, started repositioning its brand image. Considering that a fair share of its customers were affluent and business travellers, Frontier built upon its existing brand image of having a low carbon footprint by including animal images on the tails of each of its aircraft showcasing their image of being the Spirit of the West. They also implemented retail bundles that made it easy for its specific customer base to choose the level of comfort and luxury they preferred during an air travel. In other words though Frontier is also a low cost airline, they found a unique point of difference to compete successfully.
Both airlines offered the same core value proposition to their customers – low-cost air travel. But what made them stand out was the packaging and the brand image that they portrayed. Just this one act made these two airlines surpass massive competition in the aviation industry.
Essentially, they were perfect examples of the saying ‘in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is the king.’ Hence, in a sea of sameness it is absolutely critical to stand out.
I was facilitating a customer and brand strategy workshop with a client who operates in a category where creating a unique point of difference is very difficult. If you look at the web sites of all their competitors it is hard to tell the difference. I said to the CEO and his leadership team, “I can create the best possible brand strategy and the best possible customer strategy for you. We can even come up with beautiful words to showcase your value proposition. But that is not going to give you a competitive advantage.” Their obvious question was to understand the best way forward, and I said to them, “It is not so much what you say, but what you do.”
This means that in a market where developing a unique value proposition is difficult, what can become unique is what you actually do and deliver not just what you say. When it comes to ‘doing’, your staff are paramount as they are the ones that deliver your propositions and experiences. They are also in the best position to tell you what you must do to outperform.
Competitors can replicate your advertising, pricing, customer service model and may be even your operations flow. However, what they will find very difficult to do is to replicate your culture. The best definition of ‘culture’ I have seen is – the way we do things around here. When I mention Culture, I am not referring to a general positive culture where staff are happy and satisfied at work, but rather a culture of engaged staff. This means that your staff understand your brand strategy completely and are highly passionate about making it successful. They also invest time to identify new ways to deliver your customer strategy and to make your business more efficient.
This “what you do” is where you as a brand can truly create a unique value proposition by investing a small amount of time in understanding your staff and engaging them with your brand strategy management, and listening to their inputs on how the entire organisation can improve efficiencies as a cohesive force. That’s your organisational culture that no competitor can replicate because it is your exclusive DNA.
This brings me back to the point of discussion. It is important for every business to remember that showing your uniqueness in a world of sameness is what makes your business unique. So even if it is a much exploited or common concept, as long as you can infuse your unique culture into delivering a product or service, it makes a whale of a difference to your market presence.
As I mentioned earlier in the article, it is your staff who finally make your culture unique. The resources and skills that your staff have are unique to your brand. What they deliver to your customers and how they deliver is unique to your brand. It is so unique that no competitor can steal it unless they steal all your staff and allow them to replicate your brand’s culture – which is impractical unless there is a complete acquisition. Let us go back to the Southwest Airlines example that I shared earlier in the article. As you must be aware, Southwest Airlines’ economic model helped reduce air fares dramatically and opened air transport for a larger customer base. In a bid to compete with Southwest, United Airlines opened a subsidiary fleet of 56 Airbus A320-200 aircraft under the brand name Ted, offering leisure at a low-cost. However, Ted was dissolved within five years of beginning operations, merging into its parent brand. This can be attributed to Ted’s possible attempt to replicate Southwest’s operational model; however, it could not replicate the unique customer-centric culture practiced by Southwest’s staff as a cohesive force.
So how do you focus on your uniqueness and something that your competitors cannot replicate? Let’s take a look:
To break this sameness and carve a unique segment for itself, Hindustan Unilever Limited, the manufacturer of Liril, decided to focus on the educated segment of middle-class homemakers who looked forward to their much-enjoyed me-time, which was primarily during bath time. Its advertisement featured a young homemaker who was transported to a beautiful and refreshing waterfall where she danced and sang to her heart’s content. Soon after, Liril’s sales rose dramatically.
Another example to emulate is American lifestyle footwear brand Zappos. Zappos is universally acknowledged for its extreme focus on customer experience. The brand’s focus was so strong and unique that even after Amazon acquired Zappos, it allowed Zappos to grow its vision of “delivering happiness to customers, employees, and vendors” according to a letter published by its former CEO Late Tony Hseih on July 22, 2009.
It is obvious that this vision that you have charted is based on your failures and successes that are unique to your brand. Hence, every aspect of the operational success of this vision is unique to you as it is based on analytical study of years of data, and this cannot fit into another brand’s success puzzle.
Every brand offers a unique environment of growth to its staff. A brand that respects its staff and builds on their passion to perform and deliver on what the brand offers by going above and beyond is the brand that emerges as the winner. Listening to your staff, gauging customer perceptions from your ground-level employees and engaging in efficient and effective top-down and bottom-up action planning is the ultimate secret to ensuring you hold your stand and build your market even under dire competitive circumstances.
Article by Christopher Roberts
Managing Director, Engaged Strategy