Authenticity matters in business today. It's one of several advantages startups can have over big business, as many big businesses are perceived to lack authenticity, sometimes fairly and sometimes not. There's nothing less authentic than when you are not your own customer. But it's not enough to just 'eat your own dog food', you should be a superconsumer of not just what you make, but your entire category as well.

Many people mistake my superconsumer concept for being loyal to your own brand. It is actually a commitment to care, improve and grow your overall category. It is about knowing the your product inside and out, but also your competitors' products and cross category substitutes.

There is no greater example of this than Ron Shaich, the CEO of Panera, who recently called out and challenged the CEO of McDonald's to eat his own Happy Meals for a week. Ron said, "I'd like to see what he has to say about a week eating Chicken McNuggets, dipping them in that sauce. And he has to add fries and a sugary drink with every meal -- we'll see what his blood sugar is at the end of the week."

Was the CEO of Panera tweaking the biggest competitor? Yes. But he also leads by example. He was famous for living a week on a food stamps budget where he developed a profound empathy for how being poor forces you into bad nutritional decisions and leaves you grumpy at work and life. As a parent of three kids, I've learned quickly to check if the root cause of bad behavior of my child might simply be hunger.

Throwing down the gauntlet like the CEO of Panera did can be an effective challenger strategy. But entrepreneurs would be wise to ask themselves three questions to truly validate if they should really double down on this.

Is there a big income gap between the leaders and their customers?

I was giving a speech at a multi-billion dollar food business about superconsumers. For fun, I had the top 100 executives fill out a quick survey to see who were superconsumers vs. not. My goal was to make this a fun ice breaker to see who was the most extreme superconsumer of the group, but it didn't work because so few of the top 100 executives were even consumers of their category, much less superconsumers.

Obviously, there is no public data on this. But simply put ask the question of where your products are sold and how likely is it that the big company executives themselves shop there. If your category is luxury goods sold in high end department stores, then maybe the gap isn't so big. But since high executive compensation is more or less a given, if your products are sold in dollar stores, convenience stores, or lower end department stores, then odds are there is a big enough income gap between leadership and customers.

Is there a big purpose gap between your startup and the market leader?

This is where startups typically excel, but not entrepreneur deftly positions its company as a wedge with the market leader. Great missions should not be vague platitudes, but rather follow classical story lines like good versus evil, paradise lost and gained, unrequited love resolved.

Your purpose should clearly have an protagonist (your startup) and a clear antagonist that is a broader societal or consumer problem. The antagonist can be a competitor, but the narrative can't just be about competition. The competitor needs to be doing something fundamentally at odds with what the ideal is. Salesforce.com's simple yet effective mission of 'software is bad, cloud is good' meets all the criteria above.

Is there a vision gap due to overzealous brand loyalty?

Some companies are infamous for demanding fierce brand loyalty from their employees. Some companies would fire employees caught buying the competition's brands and products. I find this passion refreshing and increasingly rare, but it needs to be balanced with continuous category learning so that leaders aren't blind sided. You have to regularly try offers from competitors both in your category and across other categories.

I wonder if the CEO of McDonald's is focused more on upscale burger chains like Five Guys or Shake Shack versus Panera? It's a very difficult strategy question for McDonald's. Do they try to win in the super premium burger market? Or do they worry about the more 'everyday' and 'family friendly' competitor with convenient drive thru options like Panera? That is a great wedge and blind side that Panera can exploit.

I'm a big fan of the challenger strategy. But if your eight hundred pound gorilla has a big income gap, purpose gap and a vision gap, then you really should double down and go for it.

Published on: Oct 2, 2017
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