If your goal is to emulate large corporations by hawking an image you hope your market will believe, you may be wasting your time. Instead, follow the lead of today's smartest growing companies: skip the hype and behave in ways that let your convictions do the talking
One effect of mass marketing has been to desensitize us to overstated claims. We hear a company -- whose products, with logo removed, we couldn't tell apart from those of its competitors -- describe itself in glowing terms. A car manufacturer tells us that its products are "the heartbeat of America"; an airline exhorts us to "fly the friendly skies"; a brokerage firm informs us that it is "rock solid" and "market wise." Such claims are surrounded by pseudoevidence: healthy, happy families jumping into their station wagons; perky flight attendants; handsome, clean-shaven actors talking intensely into phones surrounded by high-tech gadgetry. It's a pat-oneself-on-the-back approach I call "image positioning," and it has come to pervade marketing messages from the most expensive ads to the least expensive laser-printed company brochures.
While we all know we are being manipulated by the image positioners and consciously discount what we see and hear, we are nevertheless unconsciously influenced by their messages. So image positioning pays off. And companies find the use of such images seductive: they present what one wants to believe and wants others to believe about one's company. Yet there are costs: for one, cynicism among consumers who have developed low expectations about the ability of companies to do what they say they will do or to be different from their competitors in any meaningful way.
Cynicism, of course, provides opportunities for those competitors to build more credible relationships with customers. And many companies have. Their names are familiar (maybe too familiar to Inc. readers, but that is evidence of their success): Ben & Jerry's, the Body Shop, Apple Computer, University National Bank & Trust, Smith & Hawken, and Starbucks Coffee, among many others. Instead of blowing up minor differences between themselves and their competitors, these companies have built real differences deep into their products and organizations. They don't have to rely on expensive self-praise to position their image. They express their character, and, in so doing, find that others are praising them.
Image positioners compete; their actions invite analo-gies involving sports or war. They focus on winning and therefore on the competitor, either to exploit its weaknesses or to neutralize its strengths. Rules of competition emerge from the fray, and a company does what it must to win. Strategies and tactics are geared to defeat the foe. Although score is kept by the number of customer purchases, in a sense, image positioners develop a more intimate relationship with the adversary than with the customer.
Character expressers, on the other hand, are aware of competitors but are not as focused on battle. They chart their own course, independent of their competitors and in tune with their customers and their own values. I think of character expression as a shrewd idealism coupled with aspirations beyond winning. A company that expresses character looks for situations that simultaneously build pride in the organization and loyalty in customers. A sense of self emerges that is both an expression of uniqueness and a guide to future action. "What we are like" and "what we would do" lead to behavior that breaks from conventional business wisdom. Such breaks then become the proof of character. For example, in saving the Swiss watch industry, Nicolas G. Hayek of SMH bucked the wisdom and kept manufacturing in high-wage Switzerland because he felt allegiance to his own society and culture. The decision forced him to find means other than low-cost labor to compete, which led to breakthroughs in product concept (the Swatch watch) and in manufacturing.
Conventional wisdom holds that retailers must keep their labor costs low, minimizing the wages and benefits of the employees who serve their customers. Howard Schultz, CEO of coffee retailer Starbucks, believes that the quality of his work force is the company's "only sustainable competitive advantage," and it is therefore important that all workers feel "pride in -- and a stake in -- the outcome of our labor." As a result, the company provides a generous compensation package, including health care and stock options, to all its full-time and part-time employees. In another break with conventional wisdom, Anita and Gordon Roddick founded the Body Shop to sell cosmetics as tools to achieve "well-being" instead of as potions to fulfill fantasies of instant rejuvenation. That naturally led to signature behavior (using inexpensive recyclable containers rather than fancy custom containers, for example).
For image positioners, values reside in brands, not in the company itself. And they often conflict with one another. For example, EstÃˆe Lauder's Origins brand espouses values more compatible with the Body Shop's (sense of environmental responsibility, use of herbal ingredients, no animal testing) than with other Lauder brands. In such situations, it seems unlikely that product passion can exist at the corporate level; little wonder, then, that product passion is undermined at the brand level. I find Origins' product-line stories calculated, cloying, and ersatz. Pardon me as I inflict on you a passage from an oh-so-environmentally-correct pamphlet on the Origins Plant Spirits line:
" Origins studied the ancient ways of creating fragrance and modernized them for the 21st century. Plant Spirits were inspired by the fragrance formulas developed through the mystical science of alchemy. Essentially, the ancient alchemists believed that a 'spark of divinity' could be discovered in all matter. By capturing that magical force and harnessing its power in an 'elixir of life,' one could hope to achieve immortality."
Character expressers use their corporate reputation as a competitive asset. They try to grow by bringing their values to new product lines. Smith & Hawken, for example, started as an importer of a line of British-made gardening tools of a quality unavailable in the United States. The importer of quality tools grew into a catalog retailing business offering a much wider variety of items for the home gardener and eventually expanded to include casual clothing and garden furniture. Similarly, Williams-Sonoma has expanded from the kitchen into the closet with its Hold Ev-erything brand and into the rest of the house with its Pottery Barn brand.
Image positioning and character expression require fundamentally different approaches to marketing communications. Image positioners see communications -- in their catalogs, brochures, direct-mail pieces, annual reports, advertisements, and so on -- as a message they want to get across. Character expressers see communications as an opportunity to demonstrate that their companies do what they say they do. Consider the following passage about Ben & Jerry's, a company that has differentiated itself with (among other things) a highly visible program of social responsibility:
"Ben & Jerry's has yet to print nutritional information on packaging of its original super-premium ice cream; it has no paid parental leave policy; and it has only one minority in a senior management position. In the case of energy, due to inadequate recordkeeping the company is unable to report on energy conservation actions. Relations with franchises have improved; even so, the company's communications with franchisees about the social mission have been uneven."
Is this an outsider's commentary showing that Ben & Jerry's is only paying lip service to its principles? No, it's the "Independent Review of Social Performance Report" section of Ben & Jerry's 1990 annual report, which shows that the company, while not perfect, really is serious about its social agenda. The passage is revealing because, although its content is negative, the behavior it represents is positive and wins out. Standard image-positioning practice would never allow negative information: most annual reports are expensive artifacts that shareholders don't believe.
The Berkshire Hathaway annual report, written by chairman and CEO Warren Buffett, is another character-expressing annual report. Investment guru Buffett gives his views of the market rather than states how wonderful his company is. (Also, Buffett, in adopting the policy of no stock splits, has created a wonderful character-expressing communication -- a share price that as of June 7 was $15,550.) In the University National Bank & Trust annual report, CEO Carl Schmitt uses his statement to teach his readers how to evaluate the performance of the bank, and he includes extra data, like average balance sheets, which he believes are important in determining bank performance. The report includes a bar chart, mixed in with the rest of the graphs, showing the number of pounds of Walla Walla sweet onions given away to the bank's customers each year. The 1991 annual report states, "As this onion reflects the pinnacle of excellence among sweet onions we seek to be the equal among banking and trust institutions." The unabashed expression of smart-as-a-fox eccentricity is a common attribute of character-expressing companies.
Companies that express character, ever on the lookout for opportunities to differentiate themselves, are more likely than other companies to integrate the various design disciplines (architecture, interior design, product design, document design, and interface design) deep into their company's performance. Traditionally, design has been applied as styling, to boost distinctiveness without improving function. Examples are the tail fins on Detroit's cars, opulent conference rooms that hinder group work, and fancy binders housing miserably organized documents.
A good example of performance-driven design was the Honda Civic, a car designed from scratch under cryptic instructions from management: "Man-maximum, machine-minimum." That direction ultimately led to a break from the conventional wisdom of cars with long, low styling. Honda adopted what it referred to as the Tall Boy concept, a design that resulted in a car short enough to park and tall enough to get into and out of easily, and one that also provided a much better view of the road.
In computer-interface design, a classic familiar example is the Apple Macintosh, created collaboratively by techies and graphic designers, and introduced in 1984. The desktop interface of Apple's operating system has given the company an almost decade-long product advantage in the fast-changing personal-computer industry. (IBM users are finally getting an approximation of Apple's advantages through Microsoft Windows.)
Image positioners can come to believe in the efficacy of seeming to be without truly being, and that can impede meaningful organizational change. Slogans can be mistaken for action and lip service for follow-through. The exaggeration of trivial product differences and wide gaps between image and reality become accepted. It's no wonder the patently sensible advice to pay close attention to one's customers is being touted as a "paradigm shift."
Patterns of behavior built on image positioning are difficult to see and hard to break. Image positioning becomes embedded in underlying assumptions, organization structures, and standard procedures. Consider a newly developed mission statement that declares, "We intend to become an oasis of superb service." Management Team A, made up of believers in image positioning, would use the statement as a slogan, repeating it at every opportunity in front of employees and customers. It would also hand the mission statement to the marketing department to provide the basis for image-positioning efforts. Finally, after a marketing campaign, it would test for customer perceptions that the company provided superior service. Positive results would be taken as evidence that the mission was being fulfilled.
Management Team B, made up of believers in character expression, would look at Team A's actions and realize that it was making little progress toward mission fulfillment, that repetition of a mission is merely a claim in disguise, and that to become a genuine oasis of superb service that team needed to fundamentally rethink how to provide the service.
Team B would make the mission known only within the company, so that image would not get out of line with reality. It would make sure that the mission was seen as an agent of substantive organizational change and would focus on such things as organizational structure, so that the ball wouldn't be dropped between departments. It would focus on the training, motivation, and empowerment of frontline personnel to ensure consistently superb service. As the reality fell into place, its expression would emerge naturally out of genuine enthusiasm and pride. Doing comes first. Public attention, often through the media's recognition of a company's newsworthiness, follows.
Character expression is hard to learn for those with faith in image positioning. However, it is a natural for young, nimble small companies. While the initial investment in developing character is significant, so are the long-term payoffs. Character instills pride in the organization and teaches employees how to behave when no one is looking over their shoulders. It delights customers, who refer new business, and journalists, who write good things about the company. Together, employees, suppliers, customers, and journalists become an unpaid but highly credible sales force, reducing a company's expenses for promoting itself.
Marketing through the expression of character not only builds trust but also provides protection to a business franchise, because unique character is difficult to emulate. Image-positioning competitors are tarred by comparison; they are not organized to deliver a higher standard of satisfaction; and they are blinded to new patterns of behavior by their inability to distinguish the making of image from the expression of character.
Peter Laundy is a principal with Laundy Rogers Design, a New York CityÃ‘based consulting firm specializing in designing marketing communications.
A TEST: HOW DOES YOUR COMPANY DISTINGUISH ITSELF IN THE MARKETPLACE?
|Image Positioning||Character Expression|
|Leads with image||Leads with improved reality|
|Focuses on competition||Charts its own course|
|Exaggerates trivial differences||Reveals significant differences|
|Makes claims supported with contrived evidence||Establishes differences in believable ways|
|Hides reality that's at odds with image to preserve image||Exposes reality that's at odds with image, then fixes reality|
|Applies style||Integrates design|
|Depends on company-sponsored communications||Depends on news media and customer word of mouth|
|Separates marketing communications from delivery of goods and services||Integrates marketing communications with delivery of goods and services|
|Manages brands with conflicting values||Lets brands express company values|
|Strains credibility||Builds trust|