It's a tale of woe that echoes from town to town. As I work with clients and speak to audiences across the country, I inevitably encounter someone reminiscent of Eeyore, the lovable-but-gloomy character from the "Winnie the Pooh" stories. "Our industry is unique," they moan. "We are in the midst of a crisis and are losing our customer base. Our profits are eroding and we don't know how to convince people how important we are. Ah, me."
First of all, I tell them, your industry is not unique -- I hear the same concern from diamond merchants, garden centers, and symphony orchestras. What's unique are the times we live in and the importance of being flexible enough to serve the desires of today's customer. When I ask, "What are you doing to reinvent yourself in order to make yourself relevant from your customer's perspective?" I'm usually met with a blank stare.
Global competition, communication technology that's morphing at warp speed, the value system of the next generation -- all are factors that determine whether or not your business will be relevant in the marketplace of the future. In order for your company's marketing strategy to resonate with customers, you must find the groove of momentum that will align it with the market of tomorrow. Even if it means reinventing yourself.
My recent favorite "comeback kid" story is General Pencil. Founded in 1889, this New Jersey-based, family-operated pencil manufacturer still uses machinery from the beginning of the 20th century to create high-end pencils.
No. 2 Pencils are a highly disposable commodity and can be manufactured cheaper in overseas markets like China (surprise, surprise). By the mid-1990s, General Pencil's customer base began to decline and the end of an era was in sight. But rather than dry up and wither away, General Pencil took several important steps to resuscitate itself:
Stop, Look, and Listen
David McCullough recently commented on the research and writing of his Pulitzer-Prize winning books, "It's the thinking that takes most of the time, as it should." In the midst of what could have easily been deemed a crisis, General Pencil took a deep breath, looked around, and began to think. What are the trends in the industry… and in the world? How has society changed… and how do we fit in? General Pencil put an ear to the ground and began listening for the arrival of impending change.
Exhale -- Then Redefine Your Market
With cheap, effective technology overwhelming the market for basic writing instruments, General Pencil had to make some difficult decisions and realized it had to redefine its customer. The company looked beyond a customer's need and focused in on his or her motivation -- what kind of customer might still be looking for a high-quality pencil? The natural answer was artists and art students. General Pencil dropped the marketing of their biggest line (No. 2 pencils) and focused on the market that cared about quality.
Become the Gumby of Your Industry
General Pencil is now so focused on delivering the best to their loyal customers, they bend themselves into pretty much any shape the consumer desires. Recently, a retail-store customer identified demand for a smaller version of General Pencil's popular Artist Color Pack. Turnaround from idea to finished product? One week. General Pencil not only strives for immediate response, they have no less than 30 new products in development at any given time.
Are you asking yourself the right -- and sometimes difficult -- questions? Do you even know what questions to ask? If you had to, could you redefine your market? And in the process, reinvent yourself? It may mean a smaller target, but as Roy H. Williams says, "Would you rather own 100% of the people 10% of the way, or 10% of the people 100% of the way?"
General Pencil is a prime example of redefining what it is you offer in a way that speaks to the heart of the customer. An industry may ask, "Why aren't things like they used to be?" when, ironically, the answer is, "Because things aren't like they used to be." Thanks to a global technological revolution, our world gets smaller and flatter everyday. Only those who understand where the competition stands and how society is changing, and then work to create a relevant marketing strategy and message, will avoid sailing over the edge.